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Plan for healthdatabase advances

Judge OKs record gathering, but privacy issues must be clarified

By Ashley H. Grant

Associated Press

ST. PAUL -- The Minnesota Health Department may soon be able to start collecting medical information on nearly every Minnesotan, a judge ruled Monday.

But before it can begin, the department must make a few changes to its plan for creating a massive database to track the quality of health in the state, such as clarifying how it will identify patients in the records.

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Many groups had opposed the policy as an attack on privacy, but administrative law judge Allan Klein said the department had taken most other steps necessary to ensure the information would remain private. And he agreed with the department that collecting information on most Minnesotans will give researchers the chance to study disease clusters throughout the state.

"There is no system of reasonable safeguards that will satisfy both the needs of the researchers and the concerns of all of the public," Klein wrote in the opinion.

Once the Health Department accommodates the judge's recommendations, the report will be submitted to the chief administrative law judge for final approval.

"We're happy with the outcome," said Dave Orren, the Health Department's rules coordinator and privacy expert.

He said the risk of privacy being violated is small compared to the benefits of being able to study health trends in the state.

The medical database would include everything from who has a stroke, abortion or surgery to who takes Prozac.

Minnesota health officials say the data would allow them to scrutinize the health system to determine, for example, how many diabetics get annual eye exams to prevent complications, whether children with asthma are treated differently in different parts of the state or whether disease clusters exist in certain areas or racial groups.

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