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Medical privacy victory is key

Picture direct marketing to everyone with the baldness gene. 4/16 ReleVents hed: Medical privacy victory is key dek: Think of direct marketing to everyone with the baldness gene. By James Mathewson

I was relieved to see that President Bush set aside partisan politics and pushed the new medical privacy policies through their proper channels, even though the current administration did not draft the policies. Few things are more personal than our medical records, and as medical science continues to leverage the human genome map, these records will become all the more personal, and protecting them from direct marketers and other prying eyes will become all the more important.

Believe it or not, the new policies put in place by Heath and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson last week have strong detractors in Congress. The reason: large HMOs and pharmaceutical companies want to be able to directly market drugs to patients. Similar to the health-care reform debacle, medical privacy is at the forefront of a fight between large lobbying groups protecting insurance, pharmaceutical, and health-care investments and the people so poorly served by our expensive system. Usually the lobbyists win.

Before you think I’m just anti-business, consider these scenarios. The day after I have a cholesterol check, I get several e-mails from various makers of cholesterol-lowering medications, touting the benefits of their products. Or, I suddenly get a lot of Viagra junk mail after my doctor says I’m “important.” Worse yet, let’s say the day comes when each of our genetic maps are housed in centralized databases. This would allow any doctor to treat anyone without even looking at their charts. But let’s say I have the baldness gene (which I obviously do). Imagine the sales pitches for Rogain I would have received while I still had hair on the top of my head.

Some say that direct marketing would be good for patients. They get all this extra medical information without even talking to their doctors. And there’s the rub. I am frequently annoyed by TV ads for medications. Why? Because my drug treatment is up to qualified doctors to decide, not some drug sales rep. Sure, understanding my medical options is important. But when patients start going into doctors’ offices and demanding drugs they saw on TV, it subverts the medical system. And besides, if I want to know about a therapy that my doctor thinks will improve my health, I can go research it on my own time and in my own way, not on direct marketers’ schedules.

Last, and most important, doctors can be sued or even stripped of their licenses if they disclose patient information. This ancient tradition of protecting patient privacy at all costs has a solid foundation, and predates our constitutional rights to privacy. Our medical conditions are some of the most personal pieces of information about us. The fact that members of Congress like Dick Armey would consider sacrificing our preconstitutional privacy rights for the sake of protecting relationship with these powerful lobbies is beyond scummy. It smacks of the long-standing support of the tobacco and gun lobbies, which defies all reason or responsibility.

James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser magazine and

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