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18 April, 2007

Proscribing prescriptions

Here's an interesting little detail in a background article about the Virginia Tech student who killed 32 people and himself on Monday:

Some news accounts have suggested that Cho had a history of antidepressant use, but senior federal officials tell ABC News that they can find no record of such medication in the government's files. This does not completely rule out prescription drug use, including samples from a physician, drugs obtained through illegal Internet sources, or a gap in the federal database, but the sources say theirs is a reasonably complete search.
So US federal agents have legal access to individuals' medical prescription records do they? According to BoingBoing's research, no, they don't.

This is precisely the sort of government access abuse to which I object. The state has no right to this private, personal information, under any circumstances; mass-murder is no exception.


Here in British Columbia, the government has set up "Pharmanet", a province-wide database containing every prescription filled in the province by any resident of the province (it may include prescriptions filled by non-residents, too; I don't know). The advantages are that it makes it possible for pharmacists to advise on possible drug interaction effects and to flag "double-doctoring", where people get medications (usually addictive painkillers) from multiple doctors. Also, if one's annual prescription drug costs rise above a certain amount (determined with reference to one's family income), the government will pay part or all of the costs. This is particularly beneficial to cancer and AIDS patients, for instance.

The downside, of course, is that it invades people's privacy. On the other hand, the government already has a record of every time you see a doctor or other medical professional under the provincial health insurance scheme, so there's already some information out there.

On balance, I'm cautiously in favour of it. To date (it's been in place for around 5 years, I think), there have been no reported cases of abuse (governmental or otherwise) or accidental leaks of information. A person can get a copy of their own record on request, but no-one other than pharmacists can access the database without express written consent of the patient. As long as the information is kept secure (which is of course the big if), I think, on balance, it's a good thing.

Posted by Jon. at April 19, 2007 07:15 PM

Sure; I don't have a problem with a database of prescription records available to designated medical professionals.

My point is that it should not be accessible to other branches of government, even, perhaps especially, law-enforcement agencies, under any circumstances, without the express permission of the individuals concerned. I wouldn't disqualify murderers from that absolute right of absolute confidentiality.

Posted by NRT at April 19, 2007 10:43 PM

Okay, then, we agree. I was quite disappointed when Cho Seung-Hui's prescription history was made public.

Posted by Jon. at April 21, 2007 05:36 PM
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