Health Gadgets And Apps Outpace Privacy Protections, Report Finds

by Charles Ornstein, ProPublica

runner's health apps


The federal patient privacy law known as HIPAA has not kept pace with wearable fitness trackers, mobile health apps and online patient communities, leaving a gaping hole in regulations that needs to be filled, according to a much-delayed government report released today.

The report, which was supposed to be complete in 2010, does not include specific recommendations for fixing the problem, even though Congress asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide them.

HHS’ findings largely mirror those in a ProPublica story from last November. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the landmark 1996 patient-privacy law, only covers patient information kept by health providers, insurers and data clearinghouses, as well as their business partners. Falling outside the law’s purview: wearables like Fitbit that measure steps and sleep, at-home paternity tests, social media sites, and online repositories where individuals can store their health records.

“Health privacy and security law experts have a reasonably clear idea of where HIPAA protections end, but the layperson likely does not,” said the report written by HHS’ Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, in conjunction with other agencies. “Moreover, even entrepreneurs, particularly those outside the health care industry … may not have a clear understanding of where HIPAA oversight begins and ends.”

Continue reading on the ProPublica website, where you’ll find links to other articles in this series exploring how weaknesses in federal and state laws, as well as lax enforcement, have left patients vulnerable to damaging invasions of privacy

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