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A NEW system of digitised, comprehensive medical records for everyone in the country is set to come into effect but Australians are being warned about potential privacy and security issues.
The Federal Government's new My Health Record system will create a personal medical file for every Australian.
People's medical records will be stored on a national database under the scheme, to be viewed by patients, doctors and other medical staff at any time. That is, unless you opt out - which you can do for a three-month period beginning today.
The scheme has been a long time coming and medical professionals are quick to point out the potential benefits to patient care it will provide. However advocacy groups such as Digital Rights Watch have expressed concerns about the security of the My Health Record initiative, and are urging everyone to opt out.
"No guarantees have being given that individual citizen's personal information will be kept safe and secure," Digital Rights Watch chairman Tim Singleton Norton warned.
"Health information is incredibly attractive to scammers and criminal groups.
"There are also concerns of the current or future access being granted to private companies."
Australian Medical Association (AMA) president Dr Tony Bartone says the system will move the industry from a "prehistoric" way of information sharing and collate data that is already in the hands of the medical industry, albeit not linked or even digitised.
"It will bring data presently located in many different parts of the health system … and attempt to bring it into an online repository in the one place," he told news.com.au. "Your health data is already in various portals. What isn't there yet is this online, connected repository … that will facilitate a communication revolution."
The system has been styled on similar efforts by other countries and has been many years in the making.
"The journey has been a torturous one," Dr Bartone said. "This is the end result of many, many years of collaboration and reviewing what has been done in other parts of the world."
The data will be available on demand to a raft or medical professionals who work in healthcare - about 12,800 health organisations and up to 900,000 health workers.
The service does give individuals a level of control over how the information is used. A PIN can be placed on individual patient summaries that are uploaded to a file, however that can be broken in emergency situations using an override function.
"Access is predicated by your allowance, or your permission, to view that record," Dr Bartone said.
"The important thing that has to happen over the next three months is not so much that you opt out but understanding if you don't opt out, how to manage your profile … you can block, you can hide pieces or entire chapters of your health file."
For those concerned about misuse, patients can set up alerts to monitor who is accessing the data and see where the information is being used.
Police will also be able gain access to the information under certain circumstances, including, but not limited to, if there is reasonable belief it could be helpful in the prevention or detection of a crime or to protect government revenue.
Health insurance companies will not have any access to the My Health Record of patients. "Insurance companies have got Buckley's to no chance of being able to use the system," Dr Bartone said.
"They've been specifically prohibited and the legislation will not change in that respect. I can't imagine a situation where our elected officials would allow that to happen."
Accessing a record without authorisation can result in prison time and up to $126,000 in fines.
But with a significant portion of data breaches in Australia occurring in the healthcare sector (roughly a quarter of those reported) and the Government's past failures in securing certain confidential health data, many commentators are worried about the potential risk to patients.
The Government's Australian Digital Health Agency responsible for the scheme has played down the security concerns touting the fact that patients can control who has access to their file.
But in an interview with Fairfax, the agency's Dr Steve Hambleton said he couldn't rule out the possibility of security breaches occurring on the platform - something which cyber security experts have labelled as an inevitability, particularly given the coveted nature of health data among criminals and fraudsters.
Freelance technology journalist Ben Grubb, who often writes about data security, is among those who have decided to opt out.
"My decision to opt out comes after consulting several healthcare professionals, privacy and computer security experts, the Government, and patients who stand to benefit from having a record," he wrote.
"I concluded that any benefit I would personally get from having a digital record would be negligible compared to the risks of it being accessed by unauthorised parties."
But despite privacy and security concerns, doctors are saying the new system will improve emergency treatment and save lives.
The National Rural Health Alliance said My Health Record would save lives in regional Australia, and urged people not to opt out.
"If you live outside a major city, you have less access to health services, and are more likely to delay getting medical treatment. That means you're more likely to end up being hospitalised," National Rural Health Alliance CEO Mark Diamond said in a statement.
"A My Health Record means that all your important health information is at the fingertips of your doctor, nurse or surgeon."
The opt-out period begins today, ending on October 15. By the end of the year, every Australian who has not opted out will have a My Health Record created for them.
HOW TO OPT OUT
If you don't want a digital file containing your health records, you will need to click the 'Opt out now' button on the opt-out page of the Government's My Health Record website.
You will need your Medicare card and driver's licence to verify your identity, and provide personal details such as your name and date of birth.
Once you have completed the opt-out process, you cannot cancel your request. However, if you decide later that you would like a My Health Record, you can create one at any time.