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Use of Personal Health Records Is Growing

But overall use remains low, and security is the major concern.
April 14, 2010

About seven percent of people in the United States have used a personal health record, double the number of users from a year earlier, according to a new survey of about 1,850 people. The survey was sponsored by the California HealthCare Foundation, an independent non-profit based in Oakland. But about two thirds of consumers remain concerned about related privacy issues, a figure that has held steady since a 2005 survey.

The 2009 stimulus bill provided $2 billion for electronic medical records (EMRs), largely in incentives for hospitals and medical practices to adopt EMR systems. Some insurers and health systems, such as Kaiser Permanente in California, have made these records accessible to patients as personal health records (PHRs), enabling them to make appointments, order prescriptions, check test results, and contact their physicians electronically. Google and Microsoft have also created free PHR programs, which can interface with a number of pharmacies and home medical devices, such as blood pressure monitors.

“We commissioned this survey to make sure the consumer voice is heard and incorporated into how policy makers and the industry implement healthcare reform more generally,” said Sam Karp, vice president of programs for the California HealthCare Foundation, at a press conference on Monday.

According to the survey, which gathered some of the first data on use of PHRs, consumers with online access to health information report knowing more about their health and say they take better care of themselves than when this information was available only on paper records. As expected, PHR use was more frequent among younger people, as well as those with higher incomes and a college education. However, the survey also found that less-educated, lower income and chronically ill patients reported a greater value from using PHRs, despite using them less frequently than other groups.

California has the highest level of PHR use–15 percent–likely thanks to large healthcare systems, such as Kaiser, which offer PHRs to their patients. Kate Christensen, a physician and director of Kaiser’s patient portal, said at the press conference that 50 percent of eligible members, about 5 million people, had registered with the website. “I think because it’s a trusted source,” she said. According to the survey, more than half of all PHR adopters use a system provided by their insurers, about a quarter use systems from their medical providers.

The finding that people with lower incomes and those with chronic conditions benefit most is good news, said Steve Findlay, senior health policy analyst at the Consumers Union, a non-profit that publishes Consumer Reports, at the press conference. “The big task in the future for vulnerable populations will be to make PHRs and health IT tools easy to use for people with less education and for older people,” he says. “They are more likely to have chronic conditions and less comfortable using computers and software.”

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