As many Australians scramble to opt out of the digital My Health Record system, Minister for Health Greg Hunt on Wednesday extended the deadline.
Australians originally had until October 15 to remove their details from the online summary of their health, although it was extended by a month to November 15. Now, under mounting pressure from Labor and many concerned about their privacy details, Hunt said the deadline had now been moved until early next year.
“Today the Government worked with the Senate crossbench to extend the opt-out period for #MyHealthRecord,” he wrote on Twitter. “The opt-out period will be extended until January 31, 2019, however, it’s important to note that people can opt-out at any time. Labor’s plan to delay and derail the roll out of the My Health Record was blocked today.”
Hunt thanked the crossbench for not delaying the important policy change and said the Government’s focus is currently on strengthening the safety and privacy of health information on the digital system.
“The Parliament is now considering further amendments to Labor’s original My Health Record legislation,” he continued. “My Health Record will protect and save lives.”
In comparison, the Govt’s focus is on strengthening the safety and privacy of health information in the My Health Record system.
The Parliament is now considering further amendments to Labor’s original My Health Record legislation. My Health Record will protect and save lives
— Greg Hunt (@GregHuntMP) November 14, 2018
Every Australian will automatically be rolled onto the online summary of their personal health information unless they opt out by January 31. Personal health information will be uploaded online by care providers to make it easier for doctors, carers and other health professionals to access health information in one online portal. This will also make it easier for patients who visit multiple specialists and health professionals, as well as potentially saving lives in emergency situations because vital information will be easily accessible.
At present, more than 6.1 million Aussies and 13,000 healthcare organisations including general practices, hospitals, pharmacies, diagnostic imaging and pathology practices are already connected by using the system. Since the opt-out period began, more than 1.5 million Australians removed their details, with 20,000 requesting their information be taken offline on the first day of the initiative.
For many, the concern is that their data and privacy is being compromised. Experts had previously warned that a major privacy breach was inevitable.
“In an environment where we seem to be hearing about a new data breach practically every few days, My Health Record is yet another privacy and security nightmare,” University of Queensland Associate Lecturer Liam Pomfret said in a statement to Scimex earlier this year. “Our health records are some of the most sensitive information we have, yet the privacy controls My Health Record offers to patients are dubious at best.”
Vijay Varadharajan, Microsoft Chair Professor in Innovation in Computing Director, acknowledged that there is a growing trend in information going digital, but there were flaws in My Health.
“From a technical point of view, there are access controls in place, however, the data itself, at this stage, is in plain format, it is not encrypted,” he said. “Hence there is a potential for leakage if a breach occurs. With the growth in malware and security attacks, we cannot rule this possibility out.”
Hunt’s latest comments come a few after the Morrison Government introduced further legislative amendments to protect private health information. This included provisions to protect people against domestic violence and tougher penalties for people who misuse the system.
He said the Government listened to concerns raised by various groups and planned to increase penalties for improper use of the digital system, strengthen provisions to safeguard against domestic violence, prohibit employers from requesting and using health information in a person’s record for discriminatory purposes and that no health information will be released to private health insurers or other types of insurers for research purposes.
These proposed amendments are in addition to those announced in July that already passed the lower house, including rules that law enforcement agencies would only be able to access a My Health Record with a warrant or court order and anyone who deletes their record – even after the opt out period – would be deleted permanently.
The Australian Digital Health Agency, which is responsible for the My Health Record, also explained that Australians have greater ability to personally control their digital health information than other countries around the world.
“Although many countries have laws that allow users to view their health information, only Australia and a handful of other countries have laws that allow citizens to control who sees their information and request corrections to their own health data,” Agency Chief Medical Adviser Meredith Makeham said in a statement.
Opting out can be done by either accessing the My Health Record website or by calling 1800 723 471. People will need their Medicare Card and either a driver’s licence, passport or ImmiCard as a form of identification.