There have been mounting concerns from the public and privacy advocates surrounding the introduction of My Health Record, a digital database, which contains the medical record of every Australian citizen, including allergies, medications, medical conditions, and pathology results.
Due to be rolled out nationally in 2018, it is made available to all healthcare providers, with people given until 15 October to opt-out if they so choose.
Among those concerned about the public’s privacy is Human Rights Commissioner, Edward Santow. He has been pushing for the government to do more to boost the system’s security, to ensure it is not vulnerable to hackers, and that individuals be made better aware about how their data will be used.
In response, on Wednesday night, Health Minister Greg Hunt and doctors from the Australian Medical Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners gathered in a meeting to discuss possible amendments.
As a result, legislation will be redrafted and new restrictions will be introduced around access to the record by non-medical authorities, such as police and government agencies. They will now be required to have a court order to access the information.
“The Digital Health Agency’s policy is clear and categorical. No documents have been released in more than six years and no documents will be released without a court order,” Mr Hunt said reassuringly in a media statement.
Furthermore, those who already have a My Health Record and wish to cancel it, will no longer have their information kept on file for 30 years after their death. Under the amendment, the file will be completely deleted from the system.
Despite the privacy concerns however, Psychologist Dr Vicky Manikas told Neos Kosmos there are a host of benefits to keep in mind, especially in the case of an emergency.
“It would certainly be useful if a person was for instance admitted to hospital in an unresponsive state and was unable to give a medical history – the staff would then just require their ID and they could access their history and possibly make decisions which might be difficult without a full history,” she explained.
For those who have a complicated medical history, particularly in the instance of the elderly who may have trouble recalling events accurately, Dr Manikas says it can ensure patients are better treated and that it can also help prevent issues relating to the interaction effect of different medications if important information is unknowingly withheld.
“It can also ensure that patients are not GP shopping for prescription medication as there would be a record, I assume, of all prescriptions given,” she adds.
But what will it mean for patients seeking a second, or even third medical opinion, given the former diagnosis will already be on record? Dr Manikas says that could pose challenges, but assures that a professional doctor should still be able to make a reasonably accurate assessment without letting a prior diagnosis impact that.
When it comes to mental health in particular however, there’s concern that the record could very well deter individuals from seeking the treatment they need.
Those accessing the services of a psychologist through Medicare via a mental health plan, which offers subsidised treatment, will subsequently have their mental health history appear on their record.
With a stigma still attached to mental health for many, those wishing to avoid a record amid privacy concerns and possible bias that could result from the information being accessed, could see people faced with a dilemma: either access treatment privately, and be out of pocket, or not access treatment at all.
“This might then mean they will find treatment less affordable as they would have no Medicare rebate, therefore inadvertently limiting the amount of help they do receive,” Dr Manikas says.
Considering both sides of the argument, for the psychologist, along with many members of the public, it would make more sense for My Health Record to be rolled out as an opt-in, rather than opt-out system.
“I would personally prefer an opt in approach as it increases the likelihood [of] informed consent and decreases the likelihood of people realising they didn’t opt out and now have a record they are wanting to delete,” she explains.
“I can see the opt out approach causing many many issues for people who don’t yet feel ready to have this system in place. Educating the public on the benefits and importance of this record and then prompting them to opt in at each doctor visit is a better approach in my opinion.”
However following Wednesday’s meeting, the opt-in argument appears to be out of the question at this stage, sending the message that the health record is here to stay, it’s the future, and something Australians better get used to. Or opt-out, with the government indicating that it is likely to extend the period beyond mid-October.
“I do think that over time, as this idea of these records become more common, that this won’t deter people [from seeking treatment],” says Dr Manikas.
“I can’t really see serious negatives apart from the public adjusting to this as a new ‘normal’.”
The new privacy changes will take some time to be implemented, with the Health Minister assuring that it will happen as soon as possible.
To find out more, visit myhealthrecord.gov.au
Note: Information is also available on the site in the Greek Language.