MEDICINE : No Restrictions on Drug Data

One of the areas where personal information is accumulating most rapidly is medical records.

While the health care industry insists patients' identities and records are protected, prescription data is one way in which private medical information is sold and transferred to employers, insurers and drug companies.

On the leading edge is Physician Computer Network Inc., a New Jersey company that is trying to create a nationwide computer network of doctors.

PCN software links physicians to insurance companies, clinical laboratories and hospitals. The system allows the doctors to save time and money processing medical claims, receiving test results and changing medications and orders for hospitalized patients.

Doctors get the service by leasing PCN computers at a discount. In exchange, PCN gets the doctors' patient records, which it compiles and then sells to pharmaceutical companies, insurers and others.

After some adverse publicity about the risks, PCN moved to create an intermediate entity to verify that PCN was not obtaining and releasing patients' names or identifying data.

Federal law prohibits anyone from passing on information from medical records that is "personally identifiable," such as names and Social Security numbers, without getting a patient's permission. But enforcement can be difficult, privacy experts say.

There is no such restriction on prescription drug information--at least for now.

Details about roughly half the 1.6 billion prescriptions filled in the United States each year are sold to outsiders, usually to pharmaceutical companies interested in which products are moving.

PCS, a popular prescription discount card company, sells its database with patients' names deleted. However, it passes along the patients' sex, age and Social Security numbers and physicians' federal identification numbers. The buyer of the data, a company named Walsh, then voluntarily replaces the Social Security numbers with patient identification numbers. That, Walsh assures, protects patients' identities.

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