Health Information Technology:

Early Efforts Initiated but Comprehensive Privacy Approach Needed for National Strategy

GAO-07-400T: Published: Feb 1, 2007. Publicly Released: Feb 1, 2007.

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In April 2004, President Bush called for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to develop and implement a strategic plan to guide the nationwide implementation of health IT. The plan is to recommend methods to ensure the privacy of electronic health information. GAO was asked to summarize its report that is being released today. The report describes the steps HHS is taking to ensure privacy protection as part of its national health IT strategy and identifies challenges associated with protecting electronic health information exchanged within a nationwide health information network.

HHS and its Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT have initiated actions to identify solutions for protecting personal health information through several contracts and with two health information advisory committees. For example, in late 2005, HHS awarded several health IT contracts that include requirements for addressing the privacy of personal health information exchanged within a nationwide health information exchange network. Its privacy and security solutions contractor is to assess the organization-level privacy- and security-related policies, practices, laws, and regulations that affect interoperable health information exchange. Additionally, in June 2006, the National Committee on Vital and Health Statistics made recommendations to the Secretary of HHS on protecting the privacy of personal health information within a nationwide health information network and in August 2006, the American Health Information Community convened a work group to address privacy and security policy issues for nationwide health information exchange. While these activities are intended to address aspects of key principles for protecting the privacy of health information, HHS is in the early stages of its efforts and has therefore not yet defined an overall approach for integrating its various privacy-related initiatives and addressing key privacy principles, nor has it defined milestones for integrating the results of these activities. GAO identified key challenges associated with protecting electronic personal health information in four areas.

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