During your lifetime you will see dozens of physicians each of whom specializes in a different field, and each of whom compiles a separate file of information about your health and medical conditions, including thoughts about their decision making processes. The electronic version of these files, called an EHR, or Electronic Health Record, can help physicians keep track of the examinations they perform, the prescriptions they provide, and the course of recommended treatment for an ailment.

Just like an EHR, Personal Health Records, also known as PHRs, can be extremely beneficial to your health and to the health of those around you. Every time you or a family member sees a doctor, has a new medication prescribed, or develops a known allergy, you can enter this information into one of the online databases that PHR companies provide. Keeping an updated, complete PHR helps you play an active role in your healthcare, and gives physicians and other healthcare professionals a more accurate presentation of your health history.

Having all of your information in one easily accessible location can make your healthcare experiences much less burdensome, as this will allow your doctor or other healthcare provider to make better decisions when it comes to your health, without repetitively requesting that you fill out voluminous intake forms. Currently each doctor you see, even if they are part of the same healthcare system, keeps a separate medical record on you, and these physicians may not be aware of other treatments and prescriptions you may be receiving. This is why having a PHR is so important; it can reconnect your medical records and keep all of your relevant health information in one place.

When you have all your medical information in one place, it helps medical professionals give you the fast, effective treatment that can save your life. PHRs can also encourage you to collect and share important health-related information with each of your personal health-care providers. In emergency situations, when you or a loved one has no communication or are far away from home, a physician can easily log on to your PHR and get the information they need to make sure you are getting the specific care that you require. It will inform them about past health issues, hereditary illnesses, and allergies you may have that could be life threatening. The more you and they know about your health, the more control you can take and the healthier you can be.

Security seems to be a main concern that many physicians as well as patients have with PHRs. They are afraid that since companies will have access to their personal information, they may use that to their advantage when it comes to advertising with pharmaceutical companies and other medical corporations. More significantly, healthcare consumers are concerned about a complete breech of confidentiality.

Although PHRs may not currently be subjected to the same degree of HIPAA scrutiny as are standard medical records that are maintained by a physician, most if not all companies that host these records online have strict protocols when it comes to your privacy. Further, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) addresses the issue of security of PHRs in significant detail. While, at this point in time, neither Microsoft nor Google has explicitly acknowledged that they are subject to the privacy and security regulations put forth by ARRA, it seems likely that confidentiality will be maintained.

A number of companies, such as MyMedicalRecords.com, have made it very easy for patients to get their records and import them into a PHR. Each person who is signed up gets a personal phone number that can be used by medical professionals to fax in documents and images, which are then automatically viewable in your PHR portal online. iHealthRecord offers a completely free service, and will even e-mail you every time one of the prescriptions you are taking has an FDA warning about it. CapMed has a HealthKey, which is a USB thumbdrive that allows you to transport your entire PHR anywhere in the world.

Two major technology companies, Google and Microsoft, have provided products in this space as well. HealthVault, from Microsoft, was released in 2007, and enables you to print out “in case of emergency” cards for emergency room personnel with special access. It also allows you to set up special customization areas for different people who may need to see your file, such as a physical therapist, who may only need to see your physical fitness information, while keeping your other data private. Google Health released its own version in 2008, offering the ability to have your medical information entered by a third party, such as your physician or local pharmacy, once you have signed on and granted them access.

With a PHR, you can securely store and manage your own health information, and have it when you want it, where you need it, and share it with the healthcare providers you choose. PHRs help you take control of the documented records about your health, and in an emergency can even save your life. Only you can decide if the privacy and security risks are worth the benefits potentially provided by PHRs. However, with the significant increase in adoption of Electronic Health Records by physicians in the very near future, this is a question you will be presented with, with some regularity, in the very near future.

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Written By: Samantha Werner and Eric Fishman, MD on March 2009. Copyright 2009, 1450, Inc.