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Agencies Say Demo Shows Electronic Health Records Can Be Securely Transmitted

By Rebecca Adams, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

September 17, 2012 -- The departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services recently said they've demonstrated how to share sensitive electronic health records between the two agencies without revealing personal information.

One of the biggest concerns of privacy advocates about electronic health records is that confidential health information will be accidentally disclosed.

Officials said that the HHS' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) used new standards to securely send to the VA a mock patient's substance abuse treatment records after electronically verifying that the mock patient had consented to the transmission.

The patient's record was tagged with privacy data, which signaled to the VA electronic system that substance abuse treatment information within the clinical document is protected by federal confidentiality laws. Those laws prevent it from being further disclosed without the patient's consent, and mean it can only be used for certain authorized purposes.

"This project helps demonstrate that with proper standards in place, existing privacy laws and policies can be implemented appropriately in an electronic environment," said Joy Pritts, chief privacy officer at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

"Privacy and the protection of sensitive health information are paramount for many patients with behavioral health conditions," said SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde. "The tools developed in this pilot will be critical for building trust and capacity in EHRs and health information exchanges, especially for patients with behavioral health problems."

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