Your personal health information in your medical records might be scattered across a few doctor’s offices, a clinic or two, or even a hospital. Your health insurer certainly stores some important personal information about you. If you’re like me, you’ve changed health insurers a couple of times since the advent of the Affordable Care Act. This means that more than one health insurance company has your social security number, home address, phone number, email address, name of employer, list of diagnoses and possible medications. Just enough for a cyber criminal to snap it up in a few seconds and then monetize and sell your private information on the black market.

I don’t hear many talking about this. Few seem to be concerned even though major news media have been sounding the alarm for a couple of years.

Maybe it’s time to listen up.

There has been a sharp increase in cyber attacks and security breaches in healthcare organizations, exposing millions of patients and their medical records. According to a new Ponemon Institute study in May of 2015  criminal attacks on hospitals, clinics, healthcare providers and health insurers are up 125 percent since 2010. The study also revealed that most healthcare organizations are still unprepared to protect patient data. Nearly 90 percent of healthcare providers were breached in the last two years.

Why would cyber hackers want information in your medical records?

Cyber criminals are after your medical records because your personal information is all in one place and unlike credit card numbers, cannot be easily changed. Poached from your medical records are social security numbers, birthdates, medical IDs, addresses, and personal health information. This is a gold mine for criminals who retrieve your information and use it for their benefit, and at your risk.

I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent cyber breach at UCLA Health Systems. Hackers broke into the network and may have accessed personal patient information from 4.5 million patients’ medical records. 

My physician’s practice was bought by UCLA a while back, so this could directly affect me. Maybe you too.

This comes on the heels of the major cyber breach into Anthem, Inc., which affected 80 million Americans.  Anthem is the 2nd largest health insurer in the U.S.

Last year alone, health records on 88.4 million people were breached as a result of theft or hacking. Data that was exposed were names, birthdays, medical IDs, social security numbers, street addresses, email addresses, employment information and income data.

UCLA and Anthem are only two of the major organizations whose networks were hacked for all kinds of valuable information for cyber criminals to sell on the black market. The list includes Premera Blue Cross, Community Health Systems, The U.S. Postal Service, The U.S. Government Office of Personal Management, Sony, Staples, Kmart, Home Depot, JP Morgan, and many more.

With the onset of electronic medical records (EMR), healthcare organizations are particularly vulnerable. Their security is often less sophisticated than other organizations.

Reuters reported, “Your medical information is worth 10 times more than your credit card number on the black market.” 

Fraudsters use your personal data from medical records to create fake IDs, take out loans, open up lines of credit, and buy medical equipment or drugs that can be resold. They can also combine patient numbers with false medical provider numbers and file false claims with health insurers.

These criminals can also impersonate you to obtain health services.

After the Blue Cross cyber security breach, one patient discovered that his medical records were compromised after he started receiving bills for a heart procedure he never had. In addition, his personal info from his medical records was used to buy expensive medical equipment which incurred thousands of dollars in fraud.

“All healthcare organizations, regardless of size, are at risk for data breach,” revealed the Ponemon Institute study.

It’s time to wake up.

Unlike stolen credit cards, which can be easily detected and cancelled, if your personal medical information is stolen from your medical records, it might not be detected for years. Your medical records could be compromised with diagnoses that don’t belong to you, wrong blood types, and other errors. This could be serious if you have an urgent medical situation.

Note: If you are a caregiver for a patient, it is very important to be vigilant for him/her too, especially if the patient is elderly. 

Tips to Protect Yourself (or a patient you care for)

1. Ask your doctor or hospital about the security of their electronic medical records.

2. Request copies of your medical records and review them for errors.

3. Review your Explanation of Benefits (EOBs) that you receive by mail or have access to on your health plan’s website. Check for errors.

4. If you notice any errors, alert your healthcare provider or health insurer immediately.

5. Each time a medical provider requests your social security number, ask if the last four digits will suffice.

6. If you store copies of your medical records online be sure it has a secure platform.

7. Keep an eye on your credit report. Unpaid medical bills can be reflected in your credit rating.

8. If you have been informed that your healthcare provider or insurer has suffered a security breach:

-Change all your passwords.

-Contact a major credit reporting agency and request that a fraud alert be placed on your account.

-If you received a letter about a security breach that could affect you, accept the free offer for credit monitoring, if applicable.

For further information, see my article published on KevinMD, How Much Health Care Data is Mined Without Your Knowledge?  

Please visit www.thetakechargepatient.com

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For years I’ve encouraged patients to obtain copies of their medical records at the time of service. Whether an MRI, CT scan, lab results, reports from surgeries, procedures and more, it is essential that patients have their own copies so they can personally hand over what is needed for meetings with specialists, second opinions, or new consultations with medical providers. No one wants to have waited a month for a second opinion with a busy specialist only to find out during the appointment that requested medical records never arrived from a previous doctor’s office, hospital, imaging center or facility. It happens all the time.

In my latest book, The Take-Charge Patient: How You Can Get The Best Medical Care, I devote an entire chapter to the importance of gathering copies of pertinent medical records and placing them in a health file at home. You never know when you’ll need that MRI and if you do, timing might be crucial and you might not have time to wait.

It’s all about independence as a patient and taking charge of what you can.

Take Cheryl, a Medicare patient in an extremely busy internist’s office. She is scheduled for necessary surgery and has the required pre-op exam. Checking out at the office front desk, she requests that her pre-op exam report be sent to her surgeon’s office ASAP as her surgery is scheduled for the following week. “No problem,” the front desk person says.

Four days before her surgery, Cheryl receives a phone call from the surgeon’s office. She is informed that they still have not received a copy of the pre-op exam and that she cannot have the surgery without it. Cheryl calls her internist’s office, and again speaks to the front desk person who insists that her record was already sent to the surgeon’s office. Cheryl tells her that Dr. X hasn’t received it and asks if it could be sent again.

Another day goes by and still Dr. X’s office has not received a copy of her pre-op exam report. Out of frustration and a sense of urgency, Cheryl arrives at her internist’s office and requests a copy of her medical record for herself so she can send it to Dr. X’s office. Her surgery is important and the wait time for it would have been six weeks had it not been for a cancellation. Cheryl has to pay a small fee but leaves the office with a copy of her medical record in hand.

This could have so easily been prevented.

Ask for a copy of your medical record at the time of service. I’ve done it myself several times. For example, I had an MRI of my foot at an imaging center. I asked for a copy of it on CD and after waiting only 15 minutes, I received a copy for free (I cannot guarantee it will be free.) I have it in my health file at home just in case I ever need that MRI for a future medical consultation.

Finally, the media is picking up on the importance of this issue, not just for the sake of patients being in charge of themselves, but to increase patient safety. See WSJ article, How to Take Charge of Your Medical Records

I can almost guarantee there are errors in your medical records. You’ll want the chance to correct those so that misdiagnoses or other medical mistakes don’t follow you from provider to provider, often without your knowledge. It’s a mistake to rely on your medical provider’s electronic medical records for this reason alone.

In case you’re wondering if you are entitled to copies of your medical records, see this http://www.mbc.ca.gov/Consumers/Access_Records.aspx You have a legal right to copies of your medical records. In California the requirement is within 15 days.

You can scan your records onto a flash drive or some other means of storage that is portable. If you choose an online cloud-based storage platform via apps or websites, you run the risk of your records being hacked or mined for data without your permission. If you choose to go this route, be mindful of selecting a very secure cloud-storage platform, if secure is even possible right now.

Personally, I choose to house copies of my medical records without any connection to the internet. It might sound old school but it’s the safest way until internet security can be absolutely guaranteed.

 

For more information, please visit www.thetakechargepatient.com

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Our 85-year-old neighbor, Dorothy, was taking 14 medications a day. She could barely get out of bed because of fatigue and mental confusion. With her adult children living out of state, my husband and I look out of her. Even with 24/7 caregivers, additional oversight is important.

When I spoke with her son, I strongly encouraged a medication review with Dorothy’s primary care physician (internist.) He soon visited and took his mom to her doctor, complete with a list of all her medications and dosages, over-the-counter medications, herbs and supplements. Her physician cut her prescription medications in half and changed a couple of others. Weeks later, Dorothy is nearly her old self again and is back to walking with her caregiver down our street.

Over-medication in the elderly is a serious and very common problem. According to The Journal of Family Practice, nearly 9 out of 10 U.S. residents who are over the age of 60 take at least one prescription medication. More than a third take 5-9 medications, and 12 percent take 10 or more. The risk of adverse drug effects and dangerous drug interactions increases significantly when a person takes more than 5 medications.

Such was the case with Dorothy. Several of her medications were causing side effects and those side effects were then treated with more medications. Multiple specialists were involved in her case and none communicated with one another. Each prescribed more medications to treat her symptoms. This is a phenomenon known as “the prescribing cascade.” Her caregivers did as instructed by helping her take her 14 medications a day and her adult children weren’t aware that “polypharmacy”  can be downright dangerous for the elderly.

Why is “polypharmacy” such a problem in the elderly? Aging affects how the body handles medications, meaning the elderly metabolize and eliminate medications less efficiently. 

If you’re caring for an elderly patient who is taking multiple medications you need to know that they can be at high risk for drug related problems.

Following are 9 strategies to help:

1. If your elderly patient is taking multiple medications and sees more than one medical provider (doctor, nurse, PA, NP), create a list of all prescribed medications and their dosages. Include over-the-counter medications, herbs and supplements. In addition, add allergies to medications. Bring this list to each visit with the patient’s medical providers.

2. Ask the patient’s primary care physician to review the list of medications. Ask questions. 

3. Talk to the patient’s pharmacist and ask for a medication review. A pharmacist’s training, education and expertise is in medications. They are there to help you. Ask questions.

4. Use one pharmacy to fill all of the patient’s prescriptions. Drug interactions, duplicate medications and allergies to medications will be caught.

5. Different medical providers might unknowingly prescribe duplicate medications for the patient if the patient does not present a list. This confusion can also occur with brand and generic medications. For example, the patient takes the generic, which has a different name than the brand. Both are the same medication. Medication samples are always brand.

6. Keep a symptom diary in partnership with the patient. If you notice new symptoms, keep a log of what the patient experiences on a daily basis. Ask the patient to contribute or if he/she is unable, document your own observations. Ask the following questions:

-When did the symptoms begin?

-Was a new medication started when symptoms began?

-How long do the symptoms last?

7.  Modern Medicine states that if the patient starts experiencing GI distress, it can be because of a new medication. Be on the look out for nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation and stomach pain.

8. If there is a change in the patient’s mental status such as drowsiness, impaired memory, confusion, prolonged sedation, it might be because of medication. Some antidepressants, muscle relaxants, antispasmodics and antihistamines can also cause confusion, blurred vision, dry mouth, dizziness and difficulty with urination. Ask the patient’s primary care physician questions. Speak up. 

9. If any of these or other symptoms occur, bring it to the doctor’s attention and show him/her the patient’s symptom diary.

10. If you are an advocate or caregiver for an elderly patient, it is very important to be informed about the patient’s medications. Older patients may see several different specialists who don’t communicate with one another and have no idea which medications the patient is taking. 

Good resource: Beers Criteria (medication list) of potentially inappropriate medications for the elderly https://www.dcri.org/trial-participation/the-beers-list

 

For more information, please visit www.thetakechargepatient.com

 

 

 

 

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Tips for a Successful Doctor Visit

By Camille Peri
WebMD Feature
Before a doctor appointment, you probably think of the things you want to talk about. 

In the shower, you remember that you should ask about those itchy bumps on your scalp. Or grocery shopping reminds you of a question about blood pressure. But then you’re there, sitting on the exam table with minutes of your doctor’s time, and you draw a blank.

“It’s difficult to recall symptoms or questions at a doctor visit because you’re nervous,” and that anxiety can mess with your memory, says Martine Ehrenclou, author of The Take-Charge Patient: How You Can Get The Best Medical Care.

You’re not alone if you squander your chance to pipe up. The average person asks five or less questions per doctor visit, says Sherrie H. Kaplan, MPH, PhD, co-director of the Health Policy Research Institute at the University of California School of Medicine in Irvine. And men are more close-lipped than women. They average zero questions per visit, she says. If it’s any consolation, “doctors are no better at it when they are patients.”

The more you participate in your doctor visits, though, the more you’ll get out of them.

“A good doctor-patient relationship isn’t just nice to have,” Kaplan says. “We’ve learned from studies that patients who participate more in treatment decisions have better health outcomes.”

These tips can help you speak up and have better visits.

Before-Visit Prep Tips

Unless you enjoy pop quizzes, prepare for your doctor visit in advance. Plan to bring with you:

  • Copies of medical records, if this is your first visit
  • Medications, vitamins, and supplements you’re taking, or a list of them
  • Information about recent medical tests
  • The names and contact information of other doctors you see
  • A list of your questions
  • A symptom diary

The more detailed you can make your symptom diary, the better. For instance, if you have stomachaches, Ehrenclou says, keep track of “when they began, when you notice them most, what makes them better or worse, if they coincided with an illness or new medication, and what you think may be causing them. Try to track them on a daily basis, or as best you can.”

Try these tips just before your visit:

  • Pick your top questions. You have a list of things you want to cover. Your doctor does, too. Chances are, you may not be able to cover all your questions in one visit. So pick the three or four concerns that are most important to you.
  • Rehearse at home. If it helps, practice giving your medical history out loud. Expect typical questions, like: What was the date of your last menstrual period? “Women always get that question from their ob/gyn doctor, and they’re almost never prepared with the answer,” Kaplan says.

Preparing not only saves precious time with your doctor — it also sets the tone for the visit. “Your doctor knows you’re taking health care seriously,” Ehrenclou says.

Top Doctor-Visit Tips

Here’s how to get what you want out of an appointment:

  • Get comfortable. If you’re tense on the exam table, tell the doctor or nurse what would help you relax. If you’d like a nurse, friend, or family member there, let the doctor know.
  • Be honest. Topics like sex or illegal drug use may be tough to discuss, but your doctor needs to know about them to give you the right care. Keep in mind, your doctor cannot discuss anything you tell him without your permission. Having a friend or family member there may make it easier.
  • Take time. The better you’re able to explain your concerns, the better your doctor can advise you about them. Stay focused, but don’t rush through a symptom if giving more information could be more helpful for your doctor.
  • Ask follow-up questions. If you don’t understand your diagnosis or treatment, speak up. If you don’t feel that you can follow through with a treatment, find out if there are other options. If you need someone who speaks your preferred language, let your doctor know.
  • Take notes. Or bring along a friend or family member to take notes or ask questions.
  • Find out how to keep in touch. Can you email your doctor? Or is it better to leave a phone message? Before you leave, ask for the best way to reach him if you have questions about what you’ve discussed.

Link to WebMD Interview of Martine Ehrenclou http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/features/visit-tips?printing=true

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The doctor-patient relationship with dying patients

Perhaps we thought we could get away with ignoring the relationship between doctors and patients. The Kaiser Health News article, “Efforts to Instill Empathy Among Doctors is Paying Dividends,” explains why we can’t.

Patient satisfaction scores and reimbursements aside, this relationship was once considered the cornerstone of quality care.

Doctors are healers but in recent years many have been reduced to diagnosticians, electronic medical records (EMR) data entry clerks, and health insurance appeal wranglers. They are so much more than that, but with 7 to 15 minutes per patient, it’s a challenge to fit in what used to be an intimate relationship with patients.

The changing face of health care has whittled down doctors’ relationships with patients to close encounters-of-the-impersonal kind. Physicians are fleeing their practices, selling them to hospitals, moving into concierge medicine, and more. Many are frustrated with how healthcare has changed the way they practice medicine. Some have found ways to salvage it.

A physician friend recently revealed to me that she doesn’t leave her office until 7:30 or 8 p.m. each night because of the EMR data entry program dictated by the hospital corporation that purchased her practice. She now has massive computer screens in each exam room. In her office, a towering computer screen looms over her desk. Seated in her once-comfortable office, I was startled by its presence.

With a sigh, she said, “It takes so much time to input patient information into the computerized forms. I can’t just type it out. I’m pigeonholed into forms and boxes that don’t allow me to just type in notes.”

With a dying patient, I wonder how much time doctors have to spend listening, waiting for patients to ask the questions instead of harnessing the conversations with their own. Atul Gawande so poignantly pointed out in his PBS/Frontline interview, Hope is Not a Plan, that conversations about end of life must include sitting with patients to allow them the space to reveal what is most important to them in their final days.

Dying is a lonely business for patients, which is why Jeremy Force, the first-year oncology student from the Kaiser Health News article, was so important to the dying cancer patient. He allowed for meaningful impact with that patient just by being present, by validating her experience, listening intently, and offering empathy. If that wasn’t life changing for him as well as the patient, I don’t know what is.

Jeremy Force used strategies he’d learned in a day-long course by Oncotalk, which is required of Duke University’s oncology fellows, as well as by University of Pittsburgh and several other medical schools. Dr. Force acknowledged what his patient was going through, provided empathy and employed active listening skills. In essence, he paved the way for the all important doctor-patient relationship.

A few days later, Jeremy Force ran into his patient in the hall of the hospital. She conveyed her appreciation and gratitude for his approach. The key, of course, is Force as a human being, ultimately revealed by his response. He said, “It was an honor.”

Maybe all doctors and patients can learn from this, push for the relationship between doctors and patients to be valued over data entry and reimbursements. We have to try.

Martine Ehrenclou is a patient advocate.  She is the author of Critical Conditions: The Essential Hospital Guide to Get Your Loved One Out Alive and The Take-Charge Patient.

TAGGED AS: PALLIATIVE CAREPATIENTS

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