Personal Health Records Moving Online

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The clipboard of forms you're asked to sign in a doctor's office are going online.

Paper records in hospitals and physician offices are increasingly being replaced by digital records on computers. Consumers are creating their own personal health records online as well. Advocates see opportunities for better health care, and some companies see profits. But patient privacy experts foresee problems.

Dr. Peter Gabriel is a primary care physician at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in using technology in a clinical setting. When he meets patients in the examining room, he types his notes directly into the computer. And he looks forward to the day when patients will put their own information online in a secure, personal health record that he can review and add to.

"That's very exciting — the possibility to do things like that," Gabriel said.

Gabriel and other doctors at the University of Pennsylvania can share computerized information about patients they have in common. But, he says, when patients aren't in that system, getting information about them isn't so easy. A personal health record, or PHR, could help.

"If one of my patients had a PHR that they maintained, and they updated it with information from the other doctors that they see, it would help me to get information that I wouldn't otherwise have access to, or to get it more quickly," he said.

It could also help in an emergency if you ended up in a hospital that had no medical history or information about you.

Microsoft is one of the companies with a system for creating online health records. Google is working on a system, too.

Consumers aren't charged for entering and storing their personal health information.

"We make money on search advertising," explains Sean Nolan of Microsoft.

Microsoft gets about 6 billion search queries a month. An estimated 3 percent to 7 percent of those are health-related. Microsoft hopes online health records will drive even more search traffic and allow for more health-related ads.

Online personal health records are still in their infancy. A tiny number of individuals have them. The widespread ability to easily share information between doctor and patient is probably years away.

Still, it's a system with a future, and that has patient privacy experts worried. Among their concerns: Who would have access to the records, and who would control that access?

"The sponsors of these personal health records are largely unregulated," says Joy Pritts, who heads a center for medical privacy at Georgetown University. She urges people to be very careful before putting any health information online and to read the small print.

"Hardly anyone does that, especially online," she said. "We all just scroll through and click 'I agree.'"

Not all systems put a premium on security and privacy; and worse, some firms may sell the data put online. Hackers could have a field day, and government officials and employers could learn things about you that you didn't intend to share.

Privacy rights advocates will be lobbying hard for safeguards as this technology gains ground.

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