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Patient portals need proxy options for better privacy protection, study finds

Roughly two-thirds of hospital systems offer proxy logins for patient portals, which are often used by caregivers to access information about care. File Photo by Rawpixelcom/Shutterstock
Roughly two-thirds of hospital systems offer proxy logins for patient portals, which are often used by caregivers to access information about care. File Photo by Rawpixelcom/Shutterstock

May 4 (UPI) -- More patient portals and electronic health records should enable users to create "proxy" accounts for nurses and home aids to prevent unintentional sharing of personal health details, researchers said Monday.

While the systems allow patients and caregivers to access information from outside a medical facility, blanket access to patient information can pose a risk to privacy and security -- making specific logins and permissions helpful -- according to an analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

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Yet, in their assessment of more than 100 hospitals across all 50 states, researchers at the University of Manitoba, University of North Carolina and Wake Forest University found that just 68 percent of systems offer a proxy account option.

These options -- which include a separate username and password for caregivers -- only provide access to only select, and necessary, information, the researchers say.

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"Sharing your own password to your patient portal account, even with close family members, is a really bad idea," study co-author Celine Latulipe, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Manitoba, told UPI.

"That would typically give them access to everything in your medical history, including past diagnoses of stigmatized illnesses such as sexually transmitted diseases or mental illnesses, substance abuse issues, reproductive health decisions," Latulipe added. "Sharing your password could also inadvertently give your caregiver access to your bank account, email or social media accounts, if you used the same or a similar password there."

More than 95 percent of U.S. hospitals have an online interface consumers can use to access health information and communicate with providers, according to the American Hospital Association.

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An estimated 40 million Americans serve as caregivers, either in a paid capacity or as a volunteer, family member or friend. A 2014 survey published by JAMA suggested that nearly 80 percent of those who rely on these caregivers prefer to give them access to their patient portals as a resource in their care.

For the new analysis, Latulipe and her colleagues surveyed a total of 102 hospitals -- 51 health system-affiliated facilities and 51 independents -- across all 50 states and Washington, D.C.

They found that 25 percent of hospitals did not provide proxy accounts for caregivers of adult patients and 7 percent of the surveyed personnel did not know whether such accounts were available at their institutions. Among the 94 hospitals asked about password-sharing between patients and caregivers, personnel in 45 percent endorsed the practice.

In addition, of the hospitals that do offer proxy accounts, only 19 percent have controls in place that enable patients to restrict the types of information their caregivers can see.

"If you are an older patient and you need your family or friend caregiver to help you with your patient portal, find out if you can set up a proxy account on the patient portal for that caregiver so they get their own username and password," Latulipe advised, adding that staff should be trained "so that they never encourage password sharing for patient portals."

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