Digital Signature and E-Records Management in Hospital Administration

Mr & Mrs Professor Dr. Vijay Pithadia 

The healthcare industry is highly regulated by a complex statutory and regulatory framework at every level. Electronic commerce in such a highly regulated industry presents some challenges to say the least. States have approached e-commerce in a myriad of ways, leaving consumers and businesses confused as to whose law applies. Electronic records and signatures are essential elements of many electronic transactions, particularly in healthcare. Electronic signatures that can't be forget. It is a computed digest of the text that is encrypted and sent with the text message.

A digital signature created by use of encryption keys can provide this high level of security because it ties an originator's identity to an electronically transmitted message by means of an algorithm. The digital signature is not a computer's "picture" of a handwritten signature, but a condensed mathematical representation of the message itself that can be created only by the originator using a private encypted key. Thus, a digital signature provides authentication of data and user.

Signatures and Certificates

A digital signature ensures that the document originated with the person signing it and that it was not tampered with after the signature was applied. However, the sender could still be an impersonator and not the person he or she claims to be. To verify that the message was indeed sent by the person claiming to send it requires a digital certificate (digital ID) which is issued by a certification authority. See digital certificate. For example:

The sender uses a one-way hash function to compute a small digest of her text message. Using her private key, she encrypts the digest, turning it into a digital signature. The signature and the message are then encrypted using the recipient's public key and transmitted. The recipient uses his private key to decrypt the text and derive the still-encrypted signature. Using his public key, he decrypts the signature back into the sender's digest and then recomputes a new digest from the text message. If the digests match, the message is authenticated. Digital signatures are a fundamental component of business in cyberspace. And numerous laws, state and now federal, have codified digital signatures into law. These laws are a mistake. Digital signatures are not signatures, and they can't fulfill their promise. Understanding why requires understanding how they work.

Health cares information and its use

E-SIGN provides guidance on how records may be stored and retained electronically. If a document is required to retain by law, an electronic version of the document will be acceptable. The electronic document accurately reflects the information in the record and is accessible to all relevant people in a form that may be accurately reproduced at a later date, whether by printing, electronically transmitting or other means. No specific type of technology is mandated by E-SIGN. The law is technology neutral; allowing individual parties to choose the technology that best suits their needs. The term "electronic" is defined broadly in E-SIGN and means related to technology having electrical, digital, magnetic, wireless, optical, electromagnetic or other similar capabilities. Under E-SIGN, the term "transaction" means an action or set of actions relating to the conduct of business, consumer or commercial affairs between two or more persons. The term "electronic record" means a contract or other record created, generated, sent, communicated, received or stored by electronic means.

Health care records (HCR) include both informations relating to the physical or mental health of patients, and information regarding the provision of health care by health care practitioners or health care facilities. Relatives, social workers and other third parties may supplement personal health information provided by the patient. The provision of health care is recorded in the professional notes, observations and opinions of health care practitioners and administrative staff. These data are entered into the health care record not only by the health care practitioners caring for the patient (including physicians, dentists, nurses and professions allied to medicine) but also by professionals providing support services, non-clinical staff acting on the professionals behalf and even by patients themselves. This diversity of origin and use of health care data present problems of security in the conventional and electronic health care records.

Issues in security of electronic health care records

EHCR are health care records that are stored, processed or transmitted using computer technology. The EHCR enables information to be used simultaneously by many individuals who may be remote from each other and from the patient, but this can be achieved only by use of the appropriate computer equipment. Thus the user who has no access to the necessary hardware or lacks the skills to operate it may be denied the information. In contrast, it is possible for those with the skills to examine and alter computer records without leaving any indication of their actions.

Computerized records can be stamped with the identity of the users who create or modify them, although the mechanisms by which most computers currently confirm the user's true identity, such as through password control, leave much to be desired and impersonation is not difficult. To compound the problem, identical copies of EHCR can be made at will, often without trace, readily transmitted over networks that now encircle the globe and linked with other data about the same individual to compile detailed profiles of their life style, health and financial status.
Ethical and legal aspects

The consequences of using an insecure information system in health care are far reaching. Patients may be embarrassed by, or socially ostracized following, disclosure of sensitive information about mental health, sexually transmitted diseases, adolescent care, drug addiction and genetic fingerprints. Their clinical care may be compromised by inaccurate or missing data as a result of unauthorized modification, from system malfunction or due to errors in program design. There is the potential for serious harm or death should such errors remain unrecognized. The EHCR must therefore be designed, implemented and run in such a way that the potential to harm the patient is minimized. Information security is a complex and highly technical subject with which even computer professionals are rarely fully conversant. Very few health care professionals have sufficient understanding of the principles of information security to confidently assume responsibility for security of information.

If properly designed, access to EHCR can be controlled more comprehensively than is possible with the conventional HCR. The introduction of the EHCR thus offers the opportunity to comply more closely with the ethical requirement to respect the individual's right to privacy while not impeding the freedom of access to information needed by the clinicians involved in delivery of health care.

In either case, We would suggest that the overall responsibility for security of health care data in a health care facility rest with the most senior clinician (e.g. the medical director or Dean) or delegated authority. There is no justification for access to health care records to be controlled by the administrative staff who own or operate the computer system holding EHCR, even though they may have the responsibility to ensure that the mechanisms controlling access are applied effectively. Regular audits of these security measures should be conducted but physical controls such as encryption may be necessary where regular monitoring is not considered feasible.

Special Consumer Protections

The term "consumer" means an individual who obtains, through a transaction, products or services, which are used, primarily for personal, family or household purposes. E-SIGN imposes special requirements on anyone obligated to provide written disclosures to consumers. Those special requirements are imposed to ensure that consumers can make fully informed decisions about electronic transactions and to provide some protection for consumers. Essentially, E-SIGN provides that the consumer must have affirmatively consented to receive the required information electronically.

Under E-SIGN, threshold questions in healthcare are whether a proposed arrangement is a transaction for purposes of E-SIGN, whether the transaction is affecting or in interstate commerce, whether a consumer is involved and what exceptions, if any, apply. If it is assumed that E-SIGN applies to electronic healthcare transactions (and in most cases that may be a reasonable assumption), there still are many unanswered questions about how electronic commerce in healthcare should be conducted.


In sum, there is one safe rule to follow when determining which laws or regulations govern a particular healthcare transaction involving the use of electronic records or signatures: closely consider all of them. Assuming each is consistent with E-SIGN, it is highly likely each will apply. The healthcare industry could achieve greater convenience and efficiency by adopting a national standard regarding the use of electronic signatures. As a term, "electronic signatures" refers to any electronic means to indicate consent to the content of a transaction. The great potential of computerized information in health care will be realized only when health care professionals and patients alike feel confident about their personal records being held on computer. It is imperative the health cares professions for quickly to implement such measures to create a secure environment for the electronic health care record. The time is ripe for creation of a national electronic-signature standard. Many vendors already require that correspondence be in electronic form and have received support from state contract law that signatures need not be handwritten.

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