Welcome to The R•H Factor, our weekly roundup of Richmond health news written by Lifestyle Editor, Tharon Giddens. In this first edition, we're talking medical record safety, e-cigarettes, an upcoming medication "takeback" event and diabetes awareness and prevention.
How safe are your medical records?
VCU Health System and Bon Secours Virginia Health System have been tabbed as two of the most wired health care organizations in the country.
That’s good news for patients, as e-records and innovative technology have revolutionized health care delivery, but there’s a dark side of e-medicine: data breaches.
Some are malicious, such as the hack in March of a network server for health insurance provider Anthem Inc., which involved a breach of 78.8 million records nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights.
The federal agency requires public reports to be filed when breaches affect 500 or more people. You can see its list here.
The Anthem Inc. hack was the largest data breach in the nation so far in 2015, according to the website healthitsecurity.com. The top breaches this year have all been the work of hackers. Click here to see their report.
There have been 1,295 breaches involving 500 or more individuals across the United States since 2009, 23 in Virginia in that time period.
Most security breaches are just a matter of human error, such as the donation debacle that was reported in December at the VCU Health System.
In that incident, old CDs with sensitive VCU Medical Center data were inadvertently included in charitable donations from 2012 through 2014. The discs, which contained the information of about 1,000 patients, included medical records and Social Security numbers. The discs had been donated for children’s art projects.
You have to wonder, how safe are your medical records, and the personal and financial information that you share with your doctor? What can you do to ensure that a healthcare provider is doing what it can to keep your information confidential and secured?
For guidance, we talked with Dr. Colin Banas, chief medical information officer for VCU Health System, and with Jason Alexander, director of service delivery for the facility.
Can electronic records be kept safe? Absolutely, says Dr. Banas. It’s a matter of staying current on new technology, hardware and training users on what they can do to keep data secure, according to Banas and Alexander.
The training is critical. Out of the 23 reported major data breaches in Virginia since 2009, only one involved hackers. The others resulted from theft, loss or human error, issues that can be mitigated through awareness and training.
“If you look at some of the biggest breaches out there, what they have found over time is that it comes down to the users,” Alexander said.
VCU Health uses encryption technology on devices that safeguards sensitive information should a device be stolen or left in a restaurant or other public place.
Also problematic are portable devices including jump drives and thumb drives. VCU mitigates that potential problem by restricting use to IronKey encrypted storage drives.
There are bad guys out there, though. Banas and Alexander said hackers are scanning and probing VCU Health’s e-perimeters on more or less a daily basis. That’s defended against with an array of strategies, including firewalls, detection software, scan blocks and programs looking for malicious traffic patterns.
They also “secret shop” themselves, the process in which VCU Health hires an outside firm to try to hack in online, and also to walk about campus to “see how much damage they can do,” says Alexander.
Is there anything you personally can do to keep your health records safe?
The best advice from Alexander and Banas is to protect yourself by not using the same user name and simple password for every site you do business with online. It’s hard enough to keep a hacker from breaking in without handing him the keys to your online existence.
TAKE IT BACK
I’ve got a drawer at home that’s loaded with assorted antacids, analgesics and medicated goo of unknown origins, some dating back to the first Bush Administration.
Yes, we all know they should go, that it’s dangerous to have old meds around where toddlers or a Labrador that will eat anything can get to them, but we also know that it’s best to keep meds out of the toilet and landfill, too.
What to do?
You can safely dispose of outdated and unneeded medications from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 22 at Bon Secours St. Francis Watkins Centre in Midlothian.
They’ll take over-the-counter meds, prescription drugs and pet meds, too. Just make sure they’re in original containers. They can be unused or long past expiration date, but no meds with needles, please.
About 1,029 pounds of medication were collected at the event last year.
The event will be held at the St. Francis Watkins Centre, 601 Watkins Centre Parkway. Sponsors are Bon Secours, the Chesterfield County Police Department and Substance Abuse Free Environment (SAFE).
NO SUGAR COATING
There’s no cure for diabetes, but it can be prevented. That’s crucial information to spread among Richmond’s minority populations, who are twice as likely as whites to develop diabetes at some point in life.
The Greater Richmond YMCA is sharing that message in a diabetes awareness campaign that runs through September.
The marketing campaign, funded through a $40,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Health, features public service messages on local transit buses and on urban radio stations.
Pre-diabetics have elevated blood sugar levels, but below levels of a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis. They are at greater risk of developing the disease.
About 86 million Americans are pre-diabetic, according to the Y, but only about 9 million have been told that they are at risk.
“Many people do not know they have pre-diabetes,” said Jana Smith, associate director of community health for the Richmond Y.
You can head-off trouble through weight loss, eating healthy, and exercising regularly.
The Y is offering a yearlong program designed to enable you to lose 7 percent of your body weight and to increase your physical activity to 150 minutes each week. It can be a life-changing event. A National Institutes of Health study indicates that the program can reduce the number of new cases of Type 2 diabetes by 58 percent.
There are 90 people participating in the Richmond Y program. Fees are based on income. The Y also offers a program for people who have Type 2 diabetes to help them learn to manage the condition, Smith said.
Learn more about the Richmond Y programs here. Go to the "Complete This Form” link on the page to provide information for a personal assessment of your risk for diabetes.
You also can call the Y at 474-4301 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
UP IN E-SMOKE
Want to know how much nicotine you’re ingesting in an electronic cigarette? A Virginia Commonwealth University researcher has done the math for you, and it doesn’t add up.
That’s because your intake of nicotine in 15 puffs from an e-cigarette can vary by more than 50 times, depending on the device, the liquid and how you puff, according to Thomas Eissenberg. He’s director of the VCU Center for the Study of Tobacco Products and a professor in the psychology department at VCU who is also a member of the cancer prevention and control program at the Massey Cancer Institute.
One factor? Experienced e-cigarette smokers take longer puffs than novices, according to VCU researchers. That results in higher levels of nicotine.
Without regulation or standards, e-cigarette smokers could become more addicted to nicotine than smokers of traditional cigarettes.
“When used as intended, an electronic cigarette should not produce a nicotine yield in excess of that of a combustible cigarette, a device that we already know has lethal health effects,” Eissenberg said in a release. “If it does, then we are essentially making an already addictive drug delivery system even more addictive.”
Eissenberg and the Massey Cancer Center team developed a mathematical model to predict how much nicotine is delivered by an e-cigarette. The model has an accuracy rate of up to 90 percent. Their study was published in July in Nicotine and Tobacco Research.