Australians have just days to opt out of the government’s new My Health Record scheme after the deadline was extended for a second time due to public concern.
If a person doesn’t explicitly opt out of the scheme by January 31, an electronic personal record will automatically be created.
The federal government has defended the controversial scheme, claiming it will make Australia’s health system better connected and lead to better outcomes for its population.
But some opponents of the plan claim the medical records will be subject to security vulnerabilities, such as data breaches and hacking, pointing to Singapore as an example of what could go wrong.
In Singapore, 1.5 million electronic health records were breached, despite the country being one of the most advanced in the world when it comes to cybersecurity.
Associate Professor Vanessa Teague, a senior lecturer in cybersecurity at the University of Melbourne, said the privacy implications of even the secondary uses of people’s health records are not being accurately explained.
She said hackers can find out confidential information about a person without even knowing their name.
“If you take a person’s individual detailed record, even if you stripped off the most obvious identifiers, like their name and their date of birth, it might still be possible for a malicious party to figure out whose record that is,” she said.
“And hence, derive other personal information about their health from that record.”
But president of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering Professor Hugh Bradlow argues that these concerns have been overblown.
“The benefits do absolutely outweigh the risks,” he said.
“Especially if you put the risks in context of the risks that exist for privacy today, which are not great. Doctor’s receptionists have access to your health records. And there are many human beings who have access to paper health records.”
Professor Bradlaw said a possible safeguard would be to make it compulsory to have a patient access code in order for people to access My Health Record information. The code would act like a PIN on a bank card.
Hard to opt out for people from non-English speaking backgrounds
Other concerns involve whether the “opt-out” implementation of the program will make it hard on groups like new migrants to people from non-English speaking backgrounds to understand their rights.
“I think anything where you put a lot of work in the way of getting people to express their opinion is going to affect those people who find that work harder,” said Ms Teague.
But some who work on the front lines of the medical profession say the scheme will actually help members of these groups, who may have difficulty communicating with a medical professional.
Chief executive of the Society of Hospital Pharmacists of Australia Kristin Michaels said medical professionals having access to information through My Health Record will help deliver better care to people who are nervous or not fully informed about themselves.
“People don’t like having to tell and re-tell their story,” she said.
“So, in having to tell that story to multiple health professionals, and potentially, not being completely aware of what that story might contain, the opportunity for error for the health practitioner then is increased and increased.”