You may have noticed during recent medical exams that your doctor or an assistant is typing away as you talk, inputting data into a tablet or computer. What she’s doing is electronically updating the details of your medical life, from the doctor’s perspective—by adding to your electronic health record or EHR.

Thanks in part to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which led to financial incentives for doctors who use electronic files, more than 80 percent of American physicians now keep some type of electronic health record for patients. But what does that mean to you?

Benefits of Electronic Health Records

Research shows that doctors who use electronic health records tend to better follow accepted treatment guidelines and have a lower rate of medication mistakes.

And one day, being able to view the information in your electronic health records on a computer, tablet, or mobile device is expected to help you stay better informed about your own health.

Right now you may not be able to quickly access your complete digital medical record. But increasingly, healthcare providers are offering a way for you to see some, but not all, of it once you enter a password—in what’s called a patient portal.

By logging on to a patient portal, you may be able to see the results of a recent lab test, for example, or find out when you last had a tetanus shot. Some are set up so that you can email back and forth with your healthcare provider.

What's Not Yet Widely Available

Experts note the benefits of “inter­operability,” the seamless movement of information from one healthcare provider to another. If all of your doctors, hospitals, and labs can share your health information with each other—digitally, in real time—they can work more effectively as a team and more easily stay in the loop on your illnesses, treatments, and surgeries.

In a health crisis, for example, doctors—rather than having to rely on your memory, which might be be clouded by the anxiety of being in the emergency room—could quickly call up your full medical record to get essential information such as your blood type and drug allergies.

But right now this is a plan, not a reality, unless your doctors are all part of the same healthcare system or use the same medical records software. And while the ultimate goal is for consumers to have the data from all of their healthcare providers in one EHR accessed via one patient portal, currently, most people probably have several records and more than one patient portal, depending on how many providers they see.

And, “frequently, doctors can’t really transfer records from system to system,” notes Dena Mendelsohn, staff attorney for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports.

Sizing Up Electronic Health Record Security

The movement toward electronic health records “is a large piece of the problem” in the rise of medical identity theft, says Joy Pritts, a former chief privacy officer at the Department of Health and Human Services and now a health information privacy consultant. Experts say EHRs are full of personal data that thieves can easily use. “Your Social Security number, date of birth, and health insurance number are three of the top things contained in medical records that are highly lucrative for the bad guys,” Pritts adds.

Having multiple EHRs, says Chuck Bell, programs director for Consumers Union, might be a security concern because it provides hackers with a larger number of digital targets to strike.

Those in information technology and security are working to hash out the problems with medical records. But it’s unclear when EHRs will be able to “talk” to each other more efficiently. “Portals have some usefulness for consumers,” Mendelsohn says. “But we are years away from the promise of what EHRs should be. We’re so far from it that we don’t know when it’s going to happen.” 

Editor's Note:
 This article also appeared in the October 2016 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.