Professional Services Review found to have breached privacy of patients

September 19, 2011 |

In the Australian today there is an interesting piece on a finding of a privacy breach by the Professional Services Review.  It provides:

PATIENT privacy has been compromised in the federal government’s bid to control health spending, with a key agency found to have illegally merged data from Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

In a case likely to fuel privacy concerns over planned electronic health records, the embattled Professional Services Review has been ordered to add computer system and practice changes to a growing list of reforms.

The PSR investigates alleged doctor rorts, but a wave of legal challenges has this year forced 39 potential cases to be abandoned and left about 50 completed cases at risk of collapse. The government, which is preparing an appeal to the High Court, has ordered an independent review and a parliamentary committee is also examining the PSR.

Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim told The Australian that after a 14-month investigation the PSR was found to have breached the Privacy Act with regard to its handling of patient information.

“I found that PBS and MBS (Medicare Benefits Schedule) claims information were being stored in the same database and this was in contravention of PSR’s obligations under the privacy guidelines for Medicare benefits and Pharmaceutical benefits programs,” Mr Pilgrim said.

Mr Pilgrim’s office has been working with PSR to resolve the situation and it has been agreed the data will be stored separately and information technology policies and procedures updated.

Concerns had been raised with the Privacy Commissioner and, more recently, the committee about the the review’s handling of doctors’ patient files. Mr Pilgrim found no evidence of wrongdoing.

“As part of my investigation I also examined whether the PSR had reasonable security safeguards in place to protect the information it holds from unauthorised access, use, modification or disclosure,” he said. “I am satisfied that the PSR has appropriate security safeguards in place.”

The PSR has polarised the medical community. The committee has heard calls for it to be more transparent and accountable and to show procedural fairness, while an advocate for one of the doctors targeted by the review has told of the personal impact it can have.

Lawyer Alan Williamson was a friend of Victorian general practitioner Peter Tisdall and represented him in various stoushes with the PSR until the 71-year-old died in June. The doctor had served the rural town of Kyabram for 46 years and was one of the longest-servicing GPs in Australia.

Mr Williamson told the committee Dr Tisdall met a community need, but the PSR was more interested in dollars than patients.

“Dr Tisdall was subjected to considerable stress and incurred substantial expense as a result of referrals (from Medicare to the PSR) that continued for more than 12 years,” Mr Williamson wrote.

“He felt frustrated and powerless because he was unable to convince Medicare that his only purpose in seeing a large number of patients was to satisfy a huge demand for medical services from the residents of the community in which he lived.

“The cost to his personal life and his family was immense. It may even have caused his premature death.”





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