For Your Eyes (and Ears, Nose and Throat) Only

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Medical records: The battle over privacy goes on

Have you ever wondered who knows your deepest, darkest medical secrets? Like the time you tripped on your shoelace and had to get 18 stitches in your head, or your bout with psychosomatic laryngitis during your 20s? Well, here's some bad news: Pretty much anyone with a little initiative and even a vague understanding of the Internet can uncover your entire medical history with surprisingly little effort. And here's the good news: All that is about to change.

The change comes in the form of new privacy rules, designed to protect individual medical records from the prying eyes of insurance companies, employers and medical personnel (and the weird guy down the street who's always asking about your latest flu shot). The new safeguards, which President Clinton announced Wednesday, are the result of years of discussion — in Washington and among the nation's consumers — over the best way to keep private medical records private in an increasingly public-access world. When the rules, which were initially mandated by Congress, take effect in two years, every patient will be able to decide who sees his or her history; without specific written consent from the patient, the records will be out of reach.

Insurance companies aren't too happy

A preliminary version of the bill would have proscribed only the distribution of electronic or printed versions of the records. After sending the guidelines to consumers for feedback, the White House was obliged to intensify the language considerably, blocking not only paper records from unauthorized dissemination, but also outlining procedures for verbal exchanges between doctors, insurance companies and other medical staff. Privacy advocates hail the bill as "a major victory for consumers," as the Health Privacy Project's Janlori Goldman told the New York Times. "The administration went to great lengths to respond to consumers' concerns about the proposed rules."

Predictably, insurance companies are not pleased with the new measures, claiming that obtaining permission for every transaction will send administrative costs through the roof — and could cut consumers off from potentially lifesaving clinics and screenings. "Increasingly, our health care system relies on information to flow between providers, hospitals, physicians and health plans," Kristin Stewart of the American Association of Health Plans, an umbrella organization, told the Washington Post.

Don't expect a lot of sympathy for the bureaucrats. As the Internet expands further into our daily lives, the public is increasingly mindful of burgeoning privacy issues — and most of us are likely to view Clinton's announcement as a belated step in the right direction.