Medical identity theft hits growth phase

Medical identity theft, "in the extreme, this could lead to your death."Medical identity theft, "in the extreme, this could lead to your death," says Larry Ponemon

'A health record is actually viewed as much more valuable than almost every other category'

Medical identity theft is on the rise and hasn’t shown signs of slowing down anytime soon, according to a new report released Thursday.

Conducted by privacy and security research firm Ponemon Institute, the report underscores the serious nature of medical identity theft, which has seen a nearly 20 percent uptick in the number of victims just from last year alone.

Some 1.84 million people in the U.S. are currently affected by medical identity theft, with these victims handing over more than $12 billion in out-of-pocket costs and paying, on average, $18,660 per individual, according to survey findings.

"One of the more serious aspects of medical identity theft, unlike traditional financial identity theft crime, is that in the extreme, this could lead to your death," said Ponemon Chairman and Founder Larry Ponemon, in an interview with Healthcare IT News. "Because your medical file could change on blood type, on allergy, on previous procedures."

[See also: ID firm, ONC work on trusted identity.]

Medical identity theft victims surveyed experienced a misdiagnosis (15 percent of respondents); mistreatment (13 percent of respondents); delay in treatment (14 percent of respondents); or were prescribed the wrong pharmaceuticals (11 percent of respondents). However, many respondents reported doing nothing to resolve the incident.

Findings also show some 50 percent of consumers who don’t take action to protect their health information. Fifty-four percent of consumers fail to check their health records because they don’t know how, and they trust their healthcare providers to be accurate. Likewise, 54 percent of respondents do not check their Explanation of Benefits. Of those who found unfamiliar claims, 52 percent did not report them.

People just aren’t aware of how serious and "life-threatening" medical identity can be, Ponemon explained. And with the nearly 20 percent increase in medical identity theft cases, it’s certainly a cause for concern.

"A health record is actually viewed as much more valuable than almost every other category because a health record, in the extreme, contains very important information like your physical characteristics, of course your health insurance, but also payment information," said Ponemon. "That's all contained in the one file," making the crime all the more enticing for criminals.

The survey also finds that consumers often put themselves at risk by sharing their medical identification with family members or friends -- unintentionally committing family fraud -- to obtain medical services or treatment, healthcare products or pharmaceuticals.