Health IT to keep lawyers busy

A new report from George Washington University researchers says many of the legal issues surrounding health IT can be resolved through rule-making and other actions by government agencies, rather than by passing new laws.

The report, “Assessing Legal Implications of Using Health Data to Improve Health Care Quality and Eliminate Health Care Disparities,” lays out a laundry list of legal questions associated with information exchanges and how aggregated clinical data is used.

Although many of the issues are not new, “the arrival of electronic information technology has inevitably triggered even more intense debate given the sheer volume and extent of available information,” according to the research team led by Sara Rosenbaum, chairwoman of the health policy department in the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

Privacy and information security issues are often the first that come to mind with respect to health IT and the law, but the report says legal accountability for the way information is used is potentially a greater issue.

As an example of an issue that could be resolved by federal agency action, the report cites collection and analysis of racial and ethnic data about patients. Although this information could shed light on disparities in health care received by different population groups, hospitals and other health care providers often are reluctant to collect it, fearing that racial and ethnic identifications are illegal.

The researchers wrote that federal and state civil rights offices could simply declare that this information should be collected.

Other kinds of legal issues that may lend themselves to agency action include tax law, laws designed to curb anti-competitive conduct and health care fraud, laws pertaining to property ownership and intellectual property ownership and privacy law, the report says.

It is the first product of a larger project sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. In the next phase, the university team will develop recommendations for policy changes to reduce legal barriers to health IT implementation.

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