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Can a Personal Health Record Save You Time and Money? Posted: March 6th, 2010

By Jim Sloan

Jim Sloan is a freelance writer in Reno, Nev.

Oftentimes, when runners sign up for road races, they enter their medical records online as part of their registration. The personal health records (PHRs) are accessible to doctors at the race, should the runner require medical attention.

Although PHRs are convenient for these athletes, they are also recommended for the elderly, travelers, and those battling chronic illnesses. In fact, an increasing number of people, regardless of age or health condition, are finding that PHRs are a convenient way to share information with their doctors and health insurance companies.

Advantages of PHRs

According to Theresa Grant, spokesperson for the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), PHRs consolidate medical records into one place -- including all of your records from trips to the family doctor to appointments with an allergist.

PHRs can also be advantageous in emergency situations, "A person's health information is scattered across many different providers and facilities -- and possibly even somewhere online," Grant said. "That means that when the seconds count, a provider may not have immediate access to some important pieces of the patient's record. Keeping complete, updated and easily accessible health records means you can provide life-saving information during an emergency, such as allergies to certain medications, blood type, or chronic illnesses or conditions that could impact your care."

Time-Efficient and Cost-Effective

In theory, PHRs can save you a lot of time and money. If you have a PHR, you may not have to fill out extensive paperwork when you visit a new doctor. The PHR also provides your doctor with your full medical records. Your doctor can avoid ordering unnecessary tests, and perhaps make more informed decisions, if your complete medical records are handy.

What's in the PHR?

PHRs can include the following information:

  • An identification sheet about you and your health insurance
  • Emergency contacts, including relatives, doctors, and specialists
  • Organ donor authorization
  • A list of your illnesses and operations
  • Your medications
  • Health insurance information
  • Health insurance claims and payments
  • Vision and dental records
  • Family disease history
  • Dietary restrictions
  • Progress notes made by any doctors, nurses, or therapists
  • Doctor's orders to other health care providers regarding your medications, tests, diets, and treatments
  • Imaging and X-ray reports, including mammograms, ultrasounds, and scans
  • Lab reports such as urinalysis, cholesterol, and complete blood count
  • Immunizations
  • Consent forms and authorizations

Starting Your PHR

PHR services are offered by some health care providers, health insurance companies, and employers. There are also many companies that provide the service for a fee.

Each PHR service has its own guidelines on how the data can be used and who can access it. When researching different PHR services, be sure to understand their restrictions. PHRs are not considered legal records and are not covered by the federal health insurance privacy act known as HIPAA.

According to the AHIMA, a PHR service should always:

  • Provide you access to your complete health information
  • Provide you with accurate and reliable information
  • Give you control over who can access or use your information
  • Be separate from your legal medical record

Top PHR Providers

There are more than 20 software programs that can help you set up PHRs. Here are some of the top programs:

  • MyPro Medical: Helps you organize your medical records either on paper or on your computer. It comes with a hard-bound organizer and a guide for requesting and collecting medical records from different doctors. Price: $13.99
  • HealthProfiler: A software program that helps build a database of your doctors, therapists, programs, insurance providers, and institutions. You can track your vital health data and keep a journal of events. Price: $15
  • The Bartlett: Provides a level of security and added features not offered with other programs. Your "Alert" screen gives immediate information to doctors and paramedics about your allergies and diseases. The "Image" page allows you to display scans of test results, such as MRIs and CTs. The program comes loaded on a USB portable computer drive ($59.99), a drive disguised as a piece of jewelry ($69.99), or as a drive shaped like a credit card for your wallet ($49.99)
  • MedInfoChip: Offers basic health information and detailed screens for allergies, EKG, medications, immunizations, and so on. Comes on a flash drive from 64 MB ($69.95) to 128 MB ($99.95)
  • World Medical Card: Provides information on three different platforms: on a card, online, or on your mobile phone. The card format contains basic health details, including medication and diagnosis codes set up by the World Health Organization (so doctors in foreign countries can read it). The mobile phone platform may be convenient for travelers because the PHR is displayed in 10 different languages. Price: $43 for one year, $68 for two years
  • VitalLife ID: This program is in the form a USB drive shaped like a card. You can input your information online or fill out paper forms and send them back for someone else to input. Contains emergency health information, medical history, and digitized images such as X-rays. Cost: $119.95

In addition to software programs, there are more than 50 Web-based PHR services that charge a fee. Here are some of the top services:

  • NoMoreClipboard.com: The basic account is free and can include PHRs for up to 10 people. A premium account costs $9.95 annually ($29.95 for families). A "concierge account," for individuals managing chronic conditions and seeing many doctors, runs from $59.95-$119.95 a year
  • WebMD Health Manager: In addition to a personal health record, the site promises health risk assessments and helps participants set goals and track progress
  • CapMed: In addition to storing your medical history, you can get personalized health information, graph your vital signs, track the progress of your pregnancy, and program reminders for appointments. Prices start at $19.95 annually
  • HealthRecordsOnline: Designed by doctors, this program originated in Canada and provides many basic services, as well as a health tips newsletter. The Web-based service promises future improvements, such as language translations. One year membership: $44.95 Canadian dollars
  • Microsoft's HealthVault & Google Health: Microsoft's Health Vault was launched in 2007, and Google Health followed shortly after. Both are working toward a key industry issue--interoperability, which basically means the ability to talk to each other. Both Web services are working with clients--doctors, pharmacies, and patients--who are not yet digitized by offering services to scan paper records

Each software program and Web-based service is different, so it's best to visit each site, study the features, and find a program that best fits your needs. AHIMA's Web-based search provides links to many of the different services.

PHR Disadvantage

Privacy is the No. 1 concern surrounding PHRs. The nonprofit group Patient Privacy Rights (PPR) recently examined five different PHR services and found that privacy policies ranged from having strong protections to invasive privacy policies.

"Some PHRs protect our rights to control who can see and use health information, and others do not," said PPR executive director Ashley Katz. "The bad news is other companies do not allow patients to control their PHRs, and that's a scary thing when you think that PHRs can store sensitive health information, as well as lifestyle habits."

The PPR created a Personal Health Record Report Card to rate PHR services. The services were evaluated on a number of criteria related to privacy, including:

  • How easy it is to understand the service's privacy policy
  • How much control a patient has over who can view their records
  • Whether a patient can find out who has accessed their information

Services that have long, complex privacy statements generally received lower grades. They were also marked down if patients did not have unquestionable control over who could see their medical records. Services that send out e-mail notifications that provide details of when and why someone had accessed your data were rewarded with higher grades.

The highest-scoring PHR service was "No More Clipboard," which received an "A." WebMD and CapMed PHRs both got Cs. Two other Web-based services were examined -- Google Health got a D for its platform and Microsoft HealthVault got a B.

PPR also tested how quickly each service responded to e-mails from customers. Some, including HealthVault, responded the same day, while others, including Google Health and CapMed, let weeks go by without a response.

Although many folks still are not familiar with PHRs, an increasing number of experts are encouraging people to compile even a simple record. It can save time and money, but a PHR can also help you to take a more active role in your own medical care.

Jim Sloan