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Despite Privacy Fears, Public Wants Digital Medicine

A chart of the poll findings.
A pie chart of public confidence in privacy of online medical records.

Americans are of two minds when it comes to the adoption of electronic medical records, according to a new poll by NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health.

Most think making doctors use computers to track, share and maintain medical information is the right thing to do, even though they don't think they'll save money and they anticipate significant breaches of privacy.

In fact, three-quarters of Americans polled said it was very important or somewhat important for doctors and hospitals to use electronic records instead of paper.

But nearly the same amount said they were not confident that their computerized records would remain safe from prying eyes.

"I believe that some people may have something on their records that might be used negatively as far as their jobs," says Paul Pointdujour, a mechanical engineer who lives just outside New York City.

But he thinks letting doctors track medical records and coordinate with hospitals electronically outweighs the risk.

Jennifer Williams of Huntington, W.Va., is pregnant with her third child and says she is happy that her doctor, who uses electronic medical records, hands her a paper copy after every visit, in case she goes into labor far from home.

"If all the hospitals were linked together, I wouldn't have to worry about that," she says.

She says she wishes electronic medical records were more common a few years ago, when her grandmother from Indiana, who was on a slew of medications for cancer, came down with pneumonia during a visit to Williams' former home in Tennessee.

"It would have been nice for the doctors in Tennessee to see what was going on with her," Williams says.

Aside from a few high-profile cases — like when staff peeked at Britney Spears' records about her hospitalization last year — it's unclear how big an issue privacy will be.

Privacy advocates who blocked earlier legislation to promote the adoption of electronic health records are so far pleased with the new rules in the $19 billion health information technology program that President Obama included in the stimulus bill earlier this year.

So, with the public and the privacy advocates cautiously preparing for change, all that's left is the challenge of getting doctors and hospitals to embrace health information technology. But doctors and hospitals have been hesitating because of concerns about costs, breakdowns and computers becoming outdated.

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