LYNN NEARY, host:
Today in Your Health, personal health records. There are Web sites that allow you to keep information about your health and medical treatment on the Internet, where you and your doctor can get to them easily. The New England Journal of Medicine today asks the question: Are electronic health records the next big thing in health care?
NPR's Joanne Silberner found when it comes to keeping these records yourself, the answer is it depends.
JOANNE SILBERNER: Debbie Witchey is like many Americans: She wants to have all her medical records accessible over the Internet. There are dozens of Internet sites that offer the service for free or for a monthly fee. Last year, she checked out promotional materials from one of the biggest ones, Revolution Health.
Ms. DEBBIE WITCHEY (Senior Vice President, Healthcare Leadership Council): I was just about to switch doctors, and one of the things they talked about was how great it was to be able to keep all your records in one place, and I was having to go through the process of getting all my records and moving them around. And I thought, well, this would be a good opportunity to give it a try. So I signed up.
SILBERNER: By filling out a few forms, she was able to get her old records scanned and uploaded onto the site, where she could print them out and bring them to her new doctor. The doctor reviewed the records and put them into Witchey's file.
Then, during the physical exam, the doctor noticed Witchey's blood pressure was high and recommended medication. Witchey wanted to try diet first. The doctor said OK, as long as Witchey monitored herself closely, which she realized she could do that easily on the Web.
Ms. WITCHEY: I tracked my weight and my blood pressure on the Revolution Health site, and then I printed it out and took it to her every month.
SILBERNER: Witchey demonstrates the process on her office computer.
Ms. WITCHEY: I just go on the Internet here.
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And then I sign in.
SILBERNER: A few clicks and she's on her own page, where she can get background on blood pressure and it's easy to call up her own record.
She weighed herself and took her blood pressure, entering the information took less than a minute. The fact that she was paying such close attention helped her a lot. She lost 50 pounds. And her blood pressure?
Ms. WITCHEY: At the beginning I don't remember. It was somewhere around 135/105, and now the last time I took it, it was 107/71.
SILBERNER: She has to input everything she wants in there — prescriptions, vaccinations, details of hospitalizations — because her doctor isn't connected to the system. And that's one of the drawbacks of personal health records, says medical records expert Joy Pritts of Georgetown University.
MS. JOY PRITTS (Medical records expert, Georgetown University): The problem now is getting that information from your family physician, for example. They're small practices, and most of them don't have their health information in electronic form.
SILBERNER: So they can't send it to a Web site. That could change as big companies get involved. Right now, Microsoft and Google are in various stages of developing online medical records systems. Some major employers, including Intel and Wal-Mart, are piloting programs as well. Some health insurers already let you have access to some information from your doctors.
At the moment creating and maintaining a full health record may be a job for the compulsive, Witchey says.
Ms. WITCHEY: When I first sat down to sign up and get started, I had this vision that I was going to put all my information in here in one sitting, and I'd be all set and ready to go. And it quickly became clear to me, there's a lot more time to invest in it than I had originally thought about.
SILBERNER: She hasn't put in her records from before 2003, for example.
It's too early in the history of medical records for success stories or horror stories to have accumulated. One thing medical records experts are worried about is privacy. Joy Pritts of Georgetown University says if you're thinking about signing up for a personal health record, be careful.
Ms. PRITTS: Whether it's on the Internet or it's offered through your employer or your health plan, you should try to really locate the part that tells who they can share your health information with.
SILBERNER: Pritts says it may mean squinting at tiny type, but search for companies that pledge not to sell your information, trade it or share it, hope that no one subpoenas your records, and hope the company doesn't go under or get sold.
Joanne Silberner, NPR News.
NEARY: Whether you store them on the Web or in a filing cabinet, experts say it's a good idea to collect your personal health records in one place. You can get tips on that at npr.org/yourhealth.
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