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Patient confidentiality at risk

A centralised data base where each New Zealander's medical and mental health details will be stored in the next few months still does not have a guaranteed security system in place.

Alliance spokesperson for health, Phillida Bunkle was responding to a recent Project Champ Newsletter which admits the scheme is not yet secure, although it is asking community organisations to supply patient files to be stored.

Champ is the Information Technology Project for Community Health and Mental Health. It is part of the Information Systems Strategic Plan, set up to collect and store information on a centralised data base.

The July 1999 news letter says it is difficult to provide 'a satisfactory balance between security and access. 'It admits that 'there is an ongoing consultation with a number of users regarding the security of data and once we have the framework of a plan we will be able to enter into wider consultation.

''Only months from completion, and they haven't yet established a security system. Security should have been the first priority not the last,' said Phillida. 'My concern is that New Zealanders have no assurances government agencies like WINZ, insurance companies, and future employers won't be able to access that information.

'At present the only 'security' is the privacy act, which carries with it no monitoring or enforcement provision. 'Once you are on the computer file, you are on it for life. People will live in fear that anyone can find out about a history of mental illness.

'Practitioners in the area of mental health are very worried about this too. A psychiatrists said to me recently that patient confidentiality is to psychiatry what a sterile field is to surgery.

You can't practise without it.'

A pilot conducted in Auckland involves not only hospitals but also private mental health providers who will now have access to confidential information. This pilot is due for completion in December, but already the scheme has been extended to across the country. Instructions about recording and sending patient mental health histories are being mailed out to community organisations right now.'If safety cannot be guaranteed, the project should not proceed. The risks are too great,' said Phillida Bunkle.


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