Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information. Final Privacy Rule Preamble.. Breaches of Health Privacy Harm More than Our Health Status


A breach of a person's health privacy can have significant implications well beyond the physical health of that person, including the loss of a job, alienation of family and friends, the loss of health insurance, and public humiliation. For example:

  • A banker who also sat on a county health board gained access to patients' records and identified several people with cancer and called in their mortgages. See the National Law Journal, May 30, 1994.
  • A physician was diagnosed with AIDS at the hospital in which he practiced medicine. His surgical privileges were suspended. See Estate of Behringer v. Medical Center at Princeton, 249 N.J. Super. 597.
  • A candidate for Congress nearly saw her campaign derailed when newspapers published the fact that she had sought psychiatric treatment after a suicide attempt. See New York Times, October 10, 1992, Section 1, page 25.
  • A 30-year FBI veteran was put on administrative leave when, without his permission, his pharmacy released information about his treatment for depression. (Los Angeles Times, September 1, 1998)
  • Consumer Reports found that 40 percent of insurers disclose personal health information to lenders, employers, or marketers without customer permission. "Who's reading your Medical Records," Consumer Reports, October 1994, at 628, paraphrasing Sweeny, Latanya, "Weaving Technology and Policy Together to Maintain Confidentiality," The Journal Of Law Medicine and Ethics (Summer & Fall 1997) Vol. 25, Numbers 2,3.

The answer to these concerns is not for consumers to withdraw from society and the health care system, but for society to establish a clear national legal framework for privacy. By spelling out what is and what is not an allowable use of a person's identifiable health information, such standards can help to restore and preserve trust in the health care system and the individuals and institutions that comprise that system. As medical historian Paul Starr wrote: "Patients have a strong interest in preserving the privacy of their personal health information but they also have an interest in medical research and other efforts by health care organizations to improve the medical care they receive. As members of the wider community, they have an interest in public health measures that require the collection of personal data." (P. Starr, "Health and the Right to Privacy," American Journal of Law & Medicine, 25, nos. 2&3 (1999) 193-201). The task of society and its government is to create a balance in which the individual's needs and rights are balanced against the needs and rights of society as a whole.

National standards for medical privacy must recognize the sometimes competing goals of improving individual and public health, advancing scientific knowledge, enforcing the laws of the land, and processing and paying claims for health care services. This need for balance has been recognized by many of the experts in this field. Cavoukian and Tapscott described it this way: "An individual's right to privacy may conflict with the collective rights of the public. . .We do not suggest that privacy is an absolute right that reigns supreme over all other rights. It does not. However, the case for privacy will depend on a number of factors that can influence the balance - the level of harm to the individual involved versus the needs of the public."