The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland (RCPI) has called for the full implementation of electronic health records, claiming such a move would help to protect patient privacy.
Ireland's largest postgraduate medical training college was responding to a report by the Data Protection Commissioner which revealed over 250 risks to privacy at 20 hospitals, including the potential exposure of medical records to "snooping" by staff who did not need to access them.
RCPI said current practices were “unacceptable and compromise patient privacy”.
The organisation's president, Prof Mary Horgan, said it was essential that the Government prioritises its commitment to investment and implementation of electronic health records across the health system, as part of Project Ireland 2040.
“Patients are entitled to privacy during their time in hospital when they are already vulnerable. They are entitled to their records and information being in a secure environment and accessible only to authorised personnel,” Prof Horgan said.
“The current strains on the hospitals system, such as overcrowding, patients on trolleys in emergency departments and now on ward corridors, means they do not have any privacy and it is challenging for healthcare professionals to communicate with them in this environment.”
Prof Horgan said having easy access to patient records was also essential to patient safety and providing the highest standard of patient care.
“Having full access to electronic health records makes it much easier to track and monitor patient information when there is a readily accessible electronic system. In its absence, we are dealing with multiple paper lists which is less secure and can, potentially, contribute to errors.”
She said communicating with patients was an important component of the RCPI medical training programmes.
“In reality though, it can, at times, be challenging for doctors to optimise those skills within their working environment,” Prof Horgan said.
A report published by the organisation last year called for the full implementation of individual health identifier and electronic health records, which it said was “essential to delivering safe, quality and effective care to patients when important patient data in the secondary and tertiary care settings is contained in multiple, often paper-based documents”.
The commissioner’s investigation into the treatment of confidential patient records at 20 hospitals across the State commenced in January last year and took over a year to complete. It focused on the journey of mainly paper-based files through hospitals, but also found that computer screens with personal information were sometimes visible to waiting patients.
Special investigators found there was a lack of proper audit trails to show who had accessed computer records and whether they had been edited. They also found patient files and medical charts were left exposed in public areas and ward areas, and that patients often did not have privacy when giving their personal details to hospital staff.