HIPAA privacy rule slows scientific discovery and adds cost to research

November 13, 2007

PITTSBURGH, Nov. 13 - Implementation of the health care privacy law widely known as HIPAA, or the U.S. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, has severely eroded the process of scientific research, delaying some clinical studies and curtailing others before they even begin, reports Roberta B. Ness, M.D., M.P.H., in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. The findings are part of the first national survey of epidemiologists commissioned by the Institute of Medicine, National Academies of Science.

"HIPAA is adversely affecting our ability to conduct biomedical research," said Dr. Ness, who is chair of the department of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH) and an advisor to the Institute of Medicine committee studying the issue. "The privacy rule has made research more costly and time consuming. As a result, some possibly important studies are just not being done."

Epidemiologists analyze the development and control of a wide array of illnesses and their impacts on public health. Survey responses from 1,527 epidemiology practitioners employed in academia, government, industry and other groups, revealed that two-thirds believed that HIPAA had made research "a great deal" more difficult to accomplish. In addition, a significant proportion of respondents reported more negative consequences for protecting human subjects than positive effects. All respondents are part of the Joint Policy Committee, Societies of Epidemiology, which co-sponsored the study.

"We asked questions about both positive and negative potential impacts from the HIPAA privacy rule, including the impact on subject privacy, confidentiality and public trust, as well as on research procedures," Dr. Ness said. "Almost 40 percent of respondents indicated that the privacy rule had increased research costs by a large degree, and nearly half said that significant additional time was required under the rule to complete projects."

Established in 2003, HIPAA was designed to enhance patient privacy by restricting access to medical records while preserving the legitimate use of such information for important social goals. In practice, however, academic institutional review boards (IRBs) and other institutional bodies that govern research on human subjects vary widely in their interpretation of the rule, resulting in a mishmash of conflicting procedures across the country, Dr. Ness noted, adding that some IRBs continue "business as usual," while others essentially shut research down.

"According to our survey, there is a perception that HIPAA may even be having a negative effect on public health surveillance practices, and a lot of it is because of this variability in interpretation," said Dr. Ness, who is president-elect of the American College of Epidemiology. "Some public health departments are defining a much broader portfolio of activities as research, and, therefore, are subject to HIPAA, more than other health departments. At this point, we're not absolutely sure what that means in terms of public health - whether this poses any threat to combating epidemics or other dangers."

While documenting negative HIPAA effects on a nationwide basis has been difficult, single-institution experience indicates widespread problems. Recruitment for one study being conducted at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, declined from more than a dozen people a week prior to HIPAA to an average of five at best after the rule took effect. At the University of Michigan, patient consent for a study declined from more than 96 percent to 34 percent. In another study at the University of Michigan, the implementation of HIPAA resulted in a nearly 73 percent decline in patient recruitment and a threefold increase in research staff time spent recruiting.

At the same time, only a quarter of epidemiologists said they thought HIPAA had achieved its goal of improving the confidentiality of patient information.

"Public opinion polls show that over 90 percent of the public thinks it's a priority for us to proceed expeditiously in uncovering new causes of and treatments for disease," said Dr. Ness. "Without any question, this survey suggests that the HIPAA legislation is impeding the progress of such research. And for those institutions that may have a breakthrough in the offing, it's going to add months to years to discovery."
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Founded in 1948 and fully accredited by the Council on Education for Public Health, GSPH is world-renowned for contributions that have influenced public health practices and medical care for millions of people. One of the top-ranked schools of public health in the United States, GSPH was the first fully accredited school of public health in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, with alumni who are among the leaders in their fields of public health. A member of the Association of Schools of Public Health, GSPH ranks third among schools of public health in NIH funding received. The only school of public health in the nation with a chair in minority health, GSPH is a leader in research related to women's health, HIV/AIDS and human genetics, among others. For more information about GSPH, visit the GSPH Web site at http://www.publichealth.pitt.edu.

University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

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