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One step closer to personal health records

Consumer Reports News: April 24, 2009 04:22 PM

No more mixing up prescriptions, racking your brain about a previous doctor’s diagnosis or treatment, or scrambling to find lab results from months back. This is the promise we’ve been hearing about electronic health records for years. But now it looks like we’re getting a big step closer. President Obama and Congress made a substantial investment—$19 billion—in what is broadly called “health information technology” (HIT) in the economic stimulus bill signed into law in February.

Some hospitals and doctors aren’t wasting any time. Mayo Clinic this month became the latest to jump on the HIT bandwagon in a partnership with Microsoft to launch Mayo Clinic Health Manager, an online personal health record (PHR) that allows you to store all your medical records and results (those available electronically) in one place. Microsoft’s PHR arch rival, Google Health, launched last year and has partnerships with Beth Israel Deaconess in Boston, among others.

Under the stimulus legislation, hospitals and doctors’ offices are given substantial financial incentives to install electronic health records (EHRs), too. Hospitals stand to receive millions of dollars over several years and doctors can get subsidies of up to around $44,000.

But despite the building momentum around HIT, a study published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine found that while most hospitals use electronic records for financial and other record keeping, only 8 to 12 percent had a basic EHR in place and fewer than 2 percent had a comprehensive EHR system. A similar survey of doctors found that only 4 percent have installed comprehensive EHR systems. These are low numbers, considering a poll out this week from NPR, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University that found 72 percent of respondent saying EHRs will help their doctors practice better care (though nearly 4 in 5 people are still worried that the privacy of their medical information will be at risk).

No one really knows how many Americans have bought or signed up for a PHR from insurers, employers, or on their own. Estimates range from seven to 12 million. But there’s no question demand is growing. A public opinion poll by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions released in March found that 42 percent of people are interested in having a PHR of some kind.

Still, starting a PHR isn’t easy. You have to ask your doctors to upload your records to it as well as arrange for labs or imaging centers to send results to your PHR. Some big medical testing businesses, such as Quest Diagnostics, are already set up to send results to PHRs. But most others don’t yet have the capacity.

PHRs may be especially useful if you have a chronic disease, take many medicines, and use the health care system frequently. And even today’s early-generation offerings can help you to coordinate and control your own care and track it much better over time.

We advise everyone to ask their doctor if they have an EHR. Docs who do will be in a better position to electronically send your records to other doctors, your prescription orders to your pharmacies, and to put test results and clinical notes in your PHR if you choose to have one, either now or down the road.

It’s impossible to predict how exactly PHRs and EHRs will evolve, over the long-term we’re convinced they will soon be widespread, if not universal.

Steven Findlay, Senior Health Policy Analyst, Consumer Reports Health, and Orly Avitzur, Medical Adviser, Consumers Union


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