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Tap Into Your Digital Health Records

Many health portals allow patients to refill a prescription, schedule an appointment and send a message to their doctor.

Imagine you're 3,000 miles from home and you break a leg. At the hospital, the emergency room nurses and doctors gain access to your health records electronically and learn that you had a mild heart attack five years ago and you take statins to keep your cholesterol at bay. The ER doctors notify your primary-care physician back home about the break, and they post x-rays and details about their treatment plan.

In the world of electronic health records, this is the ideal—how the system should work. “It’s about having access to information when and where it’s needed,” says Lana Moriarty, director of consumer e-health at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). But for now, the extent to which doctors at different institutions can exchange health info varies. Some software programs don’t communicate seamlessly with others.

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From paper to digital. Ever since the 2009 Recovery Act provided incentives to doctors, hospitals and other health care groups to digitize their paperwork, the use of electronic medical records has grown. These days, 96% of hospitals and 78% of doctors’ offices keep electronic health records, says Moriarty. That’s up from 9% and 17%, respectively, before the act passed. “We’ve gone from having an 8-inch-thick stack of records that could not be shared” to a software system that holds information from primary-care doctors, specialists and pharmacists in one record and is available 24 hours a day anywhere in the country, says Michael Young, CEO of PinnacleHealth System in central Pennsylvania. Although not all systems are as nimble as Pinnacle’s, providers, system developers and government agencies are working to change that.

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Meanwhile, most patients can access their medical information through patient portals set up by their doctors’ practices. These portals—secure websites and mobile apps—let patients view their medical records, including recent lab-test results and vital statistics (such as blood pressure and weight). Many portals allow patients to refill a prescription, schedule a routine appointment and send a direct message to their doctor. At the Permanente Medical Group, the biggest managed-care firm in the nation, a patient can send an image—of, say, a rash—to his or her doctor and get advice via the portal or even “video visit” with a physician online.

But portals vary as to what you can do on them. And unless all of your doctors are in a single practice, you’ll have a different portal for your internist, your orthopedist and your allergist.

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The strength of each portal’s firewall can also be a worry. “We have to be as secure as a bank, if not more so,” says PinnacleHealth’s Young. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a U.S. Department of Defense agency, scrutinizes PinnacleHealth’s system for breaches. Many firms, such as Permanente, have in-house technology departments that monitor security and create firewalls to keep prying eyes out.

To get the most out of this move toward electronic health records, join in. “Log in to your patient portal, if you haven’t already,” says Moriarty, and find out what you can do there. Read your medical record for accuracy, and send a message to your doctor to correct mistakes. During appointments, as your doctor types notes into your record, ask him or her to review it with you or read it out loud. “It takes a certain kind of patient to take charge of their health in that way,” says Alisa Hughley, a patient advocate who works in the health care industry. But studies show that patients who are actively involved in their care have better health outcomes and incur lower costs than those who hold back.

The other bonus to online records: Caregivers of aging parents can keep tabs on their parents’ medication and doctor visits through the portal, assuming any required legal releases or proxies have been set up.

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