Getting personal Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

As health care consumers visit different physicians for different needs, it’s important that their health histories are properly documented and communicated. Thus, the personal health record — an online tool that may transform the way health care is delivered — is becoming increasingly popular.

Its appeal is easy to understand. By giving health care consumers access to detailed information about their health care history, they become empowered to make more intelligent decisions about their care.

“With a personal health record, we can provide members with more detailed information about their health care and the resources they need to manage their health,” says Sharon Hicks, vice president of Internet strategy for UPMC Health Plan. “When you can turn employees from recipients of health care into informed consumers of health care, you can improve health.”

Smart Business spoke with Hicks about personal health records and how they help people become more engaged in health care.

What exactly is a personal health record?

A personal health record is an electronic application through which an individual can enter health care data or see information that is prepopulated from provider or insurance information. That information is related to the individual’s health status or health care. A personal health record helps an individual take a more active role in his or her own health. Consumers are more empowered regarding health care decisions when they have additional information. All information in a personal health record is private, secure and confidential. The personal health record is not intended to diagnose any specific illness; instead it is designed to allow people access to information to better manage their issues and to plan their interventions.

How is a personal health record different from an electronic health record?

An electronic health record serves the needs of health care professionals — it’s patient-related information managed by a clinician and/or a health care institution. Personal health records are a mix of information from the patient, providers and insurers. The individual chooses who to share it with and what information to add to it.

What information elements would a personal health record include?

Ideally, it provides a comprehensive summary of the health and medical history of an individual by compiling data from many sources. Consumers can see their medical history through updated claims and health assessment information. Immunization schedules, lab results, drug refill reminders, guidance aimed at managing or preventing a particular condition and information about drug allergies may also be part of the personal health record, depending on the needs of the individual. A personal health record is interactive and enables consumers to supplement it with personal information, such as family health histories. Individuals control the information in their own health records.

What are the benefits of widespread use of personal health records?

Widespread use of a personal health record can help close some of the gaps in care and promote better health through helping people get a full picture of their health. In theory, when a consumer has greater access to a wider range of health information, data and knowledge, he or she is able to leverage that information to improve health and manage conditions. Patients who have chronic diseases can use their personal health records to track progress, provide reminders for services or medications and to consolidate information into one source to aid in continuity of care. Doctors and health insurers across the country are realizing the best way to care for people is to help them care for themselves through better information and more proactive care. With a personal health record, people can take a more active role in managing and improving their health.

How would increased use of tools such as the personal health record impact employers?

Employers of companies both large and small have plenty of incentive to keep their work forces healthy. It is imperative that employers try to find innovative ways to address the rising costs of health care. If the health of your work force can be improved as a result of having your employees become interactive participants in their own health care management, you can expect to reduce organizational health care costs over time. Because the personal health record promotes a holistic approach to health and puts the emphasis on prevention, it can, over time, develop healthier lives. Employers should encourage their employees to take over control of their health. With the personal health record, people will learn to pay attention to their health before they get sick.

How would the increased use of personal health records impact health care?

When you empower consumers, you open up a floodgate of possible economic repercussions. If you change people from being simply passive recipients of health care into active consumers of health care, it really can help people improve their health. When people become active in their health and wellness, you can reduce costs in the long run. Prevention is often the best medicine.

SHARON HICKS is the vice president of Internet strategy for UPMC Health Plan. Reach her at (412) 402-8727 or hickssr@upmc.edu.