STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is Monday, and on Mondays we talk about technology. Today we'll follow the way that medical records are going online. Paper records in hospitals and doctors offices are starting to be replaced by digital ones. You may have seen this in the doctor's office yourself, seen a doctor wandering around with a computer?
But privacy advocates warn against this trend, as NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.
WENDY KAUFMAN: Peter Gabriel is a primary care doctor at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in using technology in a clinical setting. When he meets his 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 health information online in a secure personal health record that he can review and add information too.
Dr. PETER GABRIEL (University of Pennsylvania): That's very exciting, the possibility to do things like that.
KAUFMAN: 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 would help.
Dr. GABRIEL: 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.
KAUFMAN: And what would be in this personal online record? Lab results, blood pressure readings, medications, allergies, and a health history - some of it from physician visits and some added by consumers themselves. Microsoft is one of the companies that has a system for creating these online records. Google is working on one too.
Consumers aren't charged for entering and storing the information. So, you might wonder, how does a company like Microsoft intends to make money on this endeavor?
Mr. SEAN NOLAN (Microsoft): We make money on search advertising.
KAUFMAN: That's right - advertising. Sean Nolan of Microsoft explains that the idea is you go to your online medical record and while there you decide to search for health-related information. Microsoft currently gets about six billion search queries a month; an estimated three to seven percent of those are health-related. Microsoft hopes these online records would drive even more search traffic accompanied by more health-related ads.
Mr. NOLAN: And those introductions and those exposures are something people are comfortable with and used to now. And it felt much safer and more appropriate to try to make our money there than to try to say we're going to take a toll on every conversation with your doctor.
KAUFMAN: Online personal health records are still in their infancy. Only a tiny number of individuals have them, and the widespread ability to easily share information between doctor and patient is probably years away. Still, it's a system that has a future, and patient privacy experts are worried. Among their concerns: who would have access to the records and who would control that access?
Ms. JOY PRITTS (Georgetown University): The sponsors of these personal health records are largely unregulated.
KAUFMAN: So Joy Pritts, who heads the Center for Medical Privacy at Georgetown University, urges people to be very careful before putting any health information online, and she warns: read the fine print.
Ms. PRITTS: And hardly anybody does that, especially online. We all just scroll through and click I agree. You shouldn't do that if you're putting your personal health record on one of these Web sites.
KAUFMAN: For example, while Microsoft has built what one patient privacy advocate calls a very impressive security system, other systems may be less private and less secure. Some firms may even sell the data you put online. Internet 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 takes hold.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.