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Is Big Brother Watching?
Telehealth Brings New Privacy Concerns

By Sandra Ray, Staff Writer

(Page 1 of 3)

Telehealth systems are gaining popularity with older adults with chronic illnesses who desire to stay at home as long as possible rather than rely on long-term care options outside the home. Even though older adults tend to be more tentative with new technology, some are accepting the monitoring systems as a way of staying independent in their homes.

Caregivers, too, appreciate the comfort that a remote monitoring system can provide. Many times the caregiver is a concerned family member with other obligations outside the home. For example, more adults are caught in the “sandwich generation” – a family with young children of their own who are also caring for aging parents. Telehealth options provide information about activities of daily living and offer comfort amid the “busyness” of every day lives. Aging relatives can live safely at home, and caregivers also have methods to determine when issues arise that need to be addressed.

With more technology in the home, privacy concerns should be considered. Most important is a patient’s right to privacy about their medical conditions. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was passed in 1996 as a means of protecting patient privacy and still allowing medical personnel access to information that was needed to provide care. Each agency or entity that will view confidential medical information must take steps to protect the information and inform patients as to how their information is shared. Patients can even designate who can have access to their medical files.

Despite this groundswell for privacy concerns, some patients may be willing to accept others having access to their information as long as it allows them to remain at home safely and independently. This statement was addressed by research findings in a study by Georgia Institute of Technology in 2004. The project invited older adults, ranging from age 65 to 75 years of age, to view the facility and help discuss ways that technology could assist individuals who wanted to “age in place.” Instead of voicing privacy concerns, these adults indicated that as long as the technology helped them to age independently at home, they would be in favor of having them in their homes.

Current Systems and Associated Privacy Concerns:

The Civic Research Institute issued a home health technology report titled “Ethical Considerations of Home Monitoring Technology.” Several types of systems are addressed in terms of how intrusive they are to a patient’s every day life and the type of information that it gathers. On the low end are “unidirectional” systems such as personal emergency response systems (PERS). These devices can be worn as bracelets or necklaces and activated in the event that a person experiences an emergency. No data is gathered about their general well-being and overall health and they decide when to communicate with a monitoring center. For people who only want peace of mind in the event of a serious health crisis or fall in the home, these devices give the patient control over when to release information and to whom.

 

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