Health Information Technology:

Efforts Continue but Comprehensive Privacy Approach Needed for National Strategy

GAO-07-988T: Published: Jun 19, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 19, 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 information technology (IT). The plan is to recommend methods to ensure the privacy of electronic health information. GAO was asked to summarize its January 2007 report. 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. HHS's 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. 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 its 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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