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Furore over Patriot Act power to seize records

E Health Insider | January 16 2006

Doctors in the US have reacted angrily to news that patients' medical records could be seized for investigation without warrant or "probable cause" under the Patriot Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons have created a pressure group, Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, to campaign for the act to be amended to exclude confidential medical records, reports the British Medical Jounal.

The potential for the disclosure of medical records was first noticed when a newspaper reporter saw a clause in her medical centre's privacy policy that stated that they "may disclose medical information about you to authorised federal officials so they may without limitation ... provide protection to the President, other authorised persons or foreign heads of state or conduct special investigations, or conduct lawful intelligence, counter-intelligence or other national security activities authorised by law."

According to the ACLU, Additionally, medical records can be handed over to the police without a warrant in a number of circumstances outside the Patriot Act, including locating missing persons and if a crime has been committed on the premises of the patient. Section 215 of the Patriot Act gives the authorities the right to seize medical records (under the term "any tangible things") to investigate terrorism with a court order, without notice.

The American Medical Association recently adopted a policy calling for "modifications to the Patriot Act to protect patient confidentiality and minimise legal liability for physicians."

But Dan Lungren, Republican congressman for California, said that there were incidences where the seizure of medical records could provide useful information, for instance if somebody had requested an anthrax vaccine. He added that there was a need to distinguish "between a criminal investigation to prove who committed a crime after it's occurred and the need to prevent terrorist attacks."

Michael Williams, associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University, said: "If patients knew about this, I think they would be bothered - or I hope they would be."

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