How to manage your health records online

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Eleanor Laise

Doctors and hospitals traditionally have been the gatekeepers of patients’ medical records. That’s changing as a growing number of digital tools place these records at consumers’ fingertips.

Patients can now view their medical records, download them to a computer or mobile device, and organize key information such as allergies and drug side effects. They also can use these tools to transmit the data to doctors or caregivers.

One such tool already allows Medicare beneficiaries, veterans and other groups to electronically access their medical records. In September, the federal government launched a national campaign to raise consumer awareness of this “Blue Button” tool, developed in partnership with the healthcare industry (See sidebar).

Tech companies, meanwhile, are racing to develop apps and online storage systems. Apple, for example, announced last June that a new Health app would be part of its next operating system. The app’s features include an emergency medical card listing medical conditions, allergies and other key information.

Risks and benefits

But as patients take charge of their records — and become responsible for safeguarding them — the “risks are very real,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology, which promotes online privacy. If a thief obtains your insurance information and seeks drugs or treatments under your name, for example, he could wreak havoc with your own medical care and credit report.

Still, health policy experts see the benefits outweighing the risks.

“When people have access to their own personal health information, they’re inclined to be more engaged in their care,” said Joyce Dubow, principal for health policy and strategy at AARP.

Indeed, patients who manage their medical records electronically can help spot potentially dangerous errors. For example, if one of your drugs is inadvertently missing from your record, you run the risk of a doctor prescribing a drug that could interact adversely with it.

Much medical harm “can be prevented if the patient or family caregiver has a look at that information,” said Dr. Bettina Experton, chief executive officer of Humetrix, developer of an app that works with Blue Button.

An electronic “vault”

Microsoft HealthVault (www.healthvault.com) also helps organize and share your medical records while connecting with health and fitness apps and devices such as blood pressure monitors. The free service stores records on secure servers, so users can access the information from any device that has an Internet connection.

Both iBlueButton and HealthVault are highly secure tools for managing electronic medical records, Hall said. But he warns that the push toward electronic medical records may spawn startup companies offering apps that are less secure.

Read the privacy policy before downloading any app, paying particular attention to whether the company might share your data with third parties or use it to generate targeted advertisements — a warning sign that your information “can be very promiscuously shared,” Hall said.

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