My Health: privacy vs. productivity

Laura Scopel thinks the myHealth Records are an innovative idea. Photo Caitlin Doyle
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Medical professionals and the public express their opinions on the safety of the government’s new program, the My Health Record. Caitlin Doyle reports.

When Laura Scopel first became a nurse, she says “being able to access past medical history was often difficult” until the introduction of the Australian My Health records.

Yet, with thousands of Australians opting out of the new and innovative service, questions are raised about the records’ security and susceptibility to hacking, as well as government honesty.

With a scrub-nursing and orthopaedic background, Scopel says, “the data that can be collected from it will be beneficial for advancements in the medical field” and supports the new technological advancements.

Working with medical records for almost 10 years, Scopel says she doesn’t have any “real concerns”, and thinks “people who have access to the records would use the information respectfully”. She says that “it’s a hard situation, with so many people mistrusting the government, especially when our health records are the only thing still kept private”.

But do Australians really think the government is trustworthy and respectful?

It seems Australians’ lack of trust in the government has contributed to the stigma that’s been created around the new My Health Record system.

Bayside resident Alex Maddern says, “the system should be 100 percent closed and all access should be 100 percent in your control”.

Maddern has been voicing his opinions surrounding the My Health records on the local Facebook page, the Bayside Community Hub, and says especially when “they can’t get the information right on myGov (the Centrelink system), why would this information be correct?”.

His judgement of the My Health Records rests on his ideas surrounding corruption of the government, and its vulnerability to large corporations, as well as technological weaknesses.

Maddern is most concerned about who will be granted access to the records, saying that “the legislation and wording worries me. The sections allowing third-party non-profit use for statistical and medical research is concerning”.

He says that “the government has always been open to taking bribes, and that’s a massive concern”, and with insurance companies, medical research institutes and incentives from such being a big opportunity for them, he doesn’t know if he should trust the “big guns”.

Maddern also doesn’t believe Australians understand the risk of having their health records online and available, saying there’s such a high chance of being exploited. He says some Australians can be naïve, and not question the power of the My Health records.

“No one knows that the My Health records allow external access from those who you probably don’t want getting access,” Maddern says.

Since the introduction of the My Health Records, Australia’s online privacy has been a sensitive topic, with My Health research from Dr Charis Chang at news.com.au showing that “six million people already have records and about 1.15 million have decided to opt out.” Most of this pertains to the risk of private health record leaks, uploading sensitive data such as “information on sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, mental illness or cosmetic surgery,” she says.

Dr Chang’s research addresses Maddern’s concerns, displaying that through the legislation, “pharmaceutical companies in Australia and some overseas in certain circumstances will be able to apply to access the data”.

Further information in the Australian government’s fine print, accessed through freedom of information explain how “the Australian Digital Health Agency has power to release data from the My Health Record system for secondary use”. Dr Chang says the system has the potential to allow “pharmaceutical companies, overseas or in Australia to apply to access the data”. The government tries to back this up with “regular security audits of the My Health Record system”.

Sarah Forrester, senior midwife at Barwon Health, is very sceptical about the new system, and is “still trying to decide whether it’s a good or bad thing for Australians”.

Sarah Forrester is sceptical about who can see our media records. Photo Caitlin Doyle

She says the My Health records will be great for medical efficiency, allowing her to “spend less time chasing up information and more time on productively helping my clients”, which is the objective of the process.

However, Forrester also worries about Australians’ privacy. She says that she’s “asked all her family to opt out, in the hope that their records will be safer, and it won’t affect us all in the long run”.

Working in the medical industry, Forrester says although it’s a medical record, anyone opting out won’t be putting their life at risk. She says that “we know what to do in an emergency, so we don’t always have to rely on people’s records, and not having them won’t stop them getting care”.

Forrester says that the possible risks of “hacking and leaking private information are too high, and it makes me scared for what they can do with the data”. Similar to Chang’s research, Forrester believes people with sensitive health data, especially within her medical field surrounding pregnancies and abortions, are the most in danger, “because we don’t know who’s going to be able to see that”, she says.

From an industry point of view, Forrester recounts experiences where the My Health Record would have been very beneficial in streamlining hospital processes at her workplace, especially in the fast-paced and stressful environment of childbirth. She says the new records are great for when “patients are not confident about what medications they are taking”, as “staff can access enough information about health history, including medications, to provide assistance”.

Scopel also sees the benefits, “for patients who have an un-reliable memory or are non-verbal it’s a great tool to have”. “With one click of a button, we’ll be able to understand the patient’s medical history without the run-around,” she says.

But why doesn’t everyone see eye to eye? The My Health record system is so innovative, but so different to anything we’ve had before, and there’s no clean-cut explanation from anyone.

Chang’s research also demonstrates that although the My Health Records will “give doctors more complete information about your medical history to help them better diagnose and treat people”, any online record, even the My Health Records, “are susceptible to hacking no matter how sophisticated the security system”, and also sometimes “depends on the security of the IT at a local medical clinic”, which is not as “bulletproof” as the government.

Scopel says “it’s a tough situation, some people have concerns about quite private conditions and other medical history that they would like to stay that way”, but she herself has “no concerns”, backing up the government’s decisions.

“I think we’re very lucky in Australia and hope that health care continues to stay this accessible to all,” says Scopel, finding that the positives to the My Health record system outweigh the negatives.