Insurers, employers push personal health records

December 22, 2006

While physicians haven't shown much interest in PHRs, which are based largely on claims and patient-entered data, this burgeoning new source of health information may soon be more important than you think. On Dec. 13, America's Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, together representing health plans that cover more than 200 million people, announced the creation of a standardized PHR that will be portable when a patient moves from one plan to another. The web-based tool will be available to individual patients and their "designated caregivers." So you'll be able to use PHRs to get a bird's eye view of patient histories, medications, immunizations, allergies, and other information from all the providers that the patient has seen.

While physicians haven't shown much interest in PHRs, which are based largely on claims and patient-entered data, this burgeoning new source of health information may soon be more important than you think. On Dec. 13, America's Health Insurance Plans and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, together representing health plans that cover more than 200 million people, announced the creation of a standardized PHR that will be portable when a patient moves from one plan to another. The web-based tool will be available to individual patients and their "designated caregivers." So you'll be able to use PHRs to get a bird's eye view of patient histories, medications, immunizations, allergies, and other information from all the providers that the patient has seen.

While some plans are strong proponents of PHRs, it's unclear how many AHIP or BCBSA members will offer the new PHR to their members. The associations claim that 70 million people already have access to some kind of PHR supplied by their health insurers, "with millions more scheduled for service in 2007."

Meanwhile, five major employers have announced an initiative to provide their 2.5 million U.S. employees and dependents with PHRs. The companies are Applied Materials, BP America, and Intel, Pitney Bowes, and Wal-Mart. Like the health plans, these companies proclaim that the use of PHRs will help improve care and cut healthcare costs by eliminating waste and duplication of effort. Their initiative has been endorsed by the AAFP and the National Consumers League, among other organizations.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has also checked in with a $4.1 million grant program to "design and test bold ideas for how consumers can use information technology to better manage their health and navigate the healthcare system." The centerpiece of the research program: PHRs.

Are consumers interested in PHRs? According to a study recently unveiled by the Markle Foundation, 65 percent of Americans would like to access their own medical information across an electronic network. But 80 percent are very concerned about identity theft or fraud and the possibility of their data being used by marketers without permission. Other researchers have pointed out that some consumers are concerned about employers seeing their personal health data.