Panel Examines Privacy Issues

by EA Mukamel
The Harvard Crimson, May 15, 1998: p. 3

Professors and experts of the Internet and the law gathered at [Harvard] Business School's Pound Hall to discuss ways of protecting confidential personal information in the age of the Internet.

The panel discussions focused on "Privacy and Cyber/Spaces: Government Databanks and Identification," and many participants came from medical backgrounds.

"The problem is an immediate and practical one for practicing doctors," said Medical School professor Harold J. Bursztajn, who is co-Director of the Program in Psychiatry and the Law.

"Privacy comes up a good deal of the time, for example, when we have to fill out insurance health care forms," he said. "Many of the patients I see at my private practice come to me because they value privacy; they would never see me at the medical school."

Bursztajn and others said wider access to medical data can benefit doctors, who may use the information to improve the way they deliver services to students.

Bursztajn said the extent to which medical information is being used both properly and improperly has not been examined, and the loss of medical privacy on the Internet remains a fear, not a verified reality.

"The problem is there is no good data on databanks [and how they are being used.] What we do know is that managed care organizations have been using databanks to profile physicians based on cost," putting pressure on physicians to forsake quality of care in order to lower costs, he said.

More than simply an issue of comfort, privacy is often a prerequisite to good medical care.

"How can anyone gain a deeper understanding of themselves or have more freedom in their lives unless you have confidentiality and they know that they will have control over what goes out of my office?" Bursztajn said of his psychiatric patients. "If you don't have confidentiality, then you really are asking people to begin to systematically keep from physicians the information the [doctors] need to know."