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Study examines complicated system of laws limiting use of health data

A stethoscope on a computer keyboard

Image: School of Public Health

A new study from researchers at Texas A&M School of Public Health identifies a massive, complex and often overlapping system of laws and regulations that govern the use of electronic health information in the United States, creating a situation that may impede advancements in using or sharing the data.

“Electronic health information laws are numerous and highly fragmented,” said Cason Schmit, a research assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at the School of Public Health. “Every state regulates health information differently, and many states have different laws to regulate different uses, such as treatment, health care payment, health information exchange and vital statistics. For many practitioners in health care or public health, it is incredibly difficult to understand which law applies to them, much less the added difficulty of understanding whether the law authorizes or prohibits an activity.”

Schmit led the research team that dug into this complex legal environment to gain a better understanding of the laws and uncover how regulations might affect health care and public health goals, such as patient care and public health reporting. Their study, published in the journal Public Health Reports, searched legal databases to find laws in the 50 U.S. states, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia that were related to electronic information and individual health.

The study found more than 2,300 EHI-related laws on the books as of January 2014. Of these, 145 laws were from Texas alone, the largest number from a single jurisdiction.

In addition to the sheer number of laws, many regulations overlap with each other, the researchers say. This complexity affects more than health care providers, hospitals and public health departments. For instance, health information software developers must o analyze, understand and comply with regulations in each jurisdiction where their software would be used.

This serves as an obstacle to innovation in a field that might otherwise grow and adapt rapidly.

“Regulatory complexity fosters misconceptions about laws and can lead to overly conservative policies that minimize legal risk but severely limit the usefulness of the technology,” Schmit said.