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How Should Congress Handle Health IT?

WASHINGTON -- Reforming the nation's healthcare system is never a simple proposition. Add in sweeping initiatives to bring the medical industry into the digital age, as President-elect Barack Obama has called for, and another wrinkle is added to the already-complicated issue.

At a panel discussion here at the annual conference of the Advisory Committee to the Congressional Internet Caucus, a group of experts involved in the debate outlined some of the steps they'd like to see lawmakers take as they mull health IT initiatives, including privacy assurances and holding providers accountable for how they use federal funds.

The issue is a timely one, as the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions plans to consider using money from the proposed economic stimulus package to fund IT healthcare at a hearing Thursday.

At the same time, tech firms such as Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) have launched major initiatives aimed at bringing medical records online so they are more accessible to patients.

"We're really excited about the prospect of actually being able to do more stuff with your personal health information online, and receive guidance in your own homes as opposed to having infrequent and sporadic interactions with the healthcare system," said George Scriban, senior global strategist for Microsoft.

Microsoft's product is called HealthVault. Like Google Health, the service is aimed at giving patients secure online access to their medical information while inviting developers to write applications that make medical data more useful and accessible.

Despite the companies' security assurances, privacy advocates would like to see Congress incorporate significant safeguards to protect sensitive medical information as a provision for any funding it allocates for healthcare IT.

Deven McGraw, director of the health privacy project for the Center for Digital Democracy, a digital-rights advocacy group, said Congress needs to adopt a tiered set of privacy rules that would establish different access provisions for patients and providers.

"The rules that we need to put into place for how healthcare providers exchange information via electronic medical records in my view need to be very different from the rules that need to be put into place for example when you're talking about personal products that are designed for the consumer to use," McGraw said.

Next page: privacy concerns.