Personal Health Records Use Rising

Despite privacy and other concerns, 7% of Americans have online PHRs -- twice as many as two years ago.

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee, Senior Writer, InformationWeek

April 12, 2010

4 Min Read

While consumer use of online personal health records is still low in the U.S., the digital records are catching on despite privacy and other concerns, according to a new study released Tuesday by the California Healthcare Foundation.

While only 7% of Americans -- or one in 14 -- say they've used a PHR, usage of the online records has doubled over the last two years, according to the CHF survey of 1,848 Americans over the age of 18.

Users of PHRs are more likely to pay closer attention to their health and be more engaged in their care when their health information is accessible online, according to the findings.

The interview study was conducted from mid-December to mid-January by Lake Research Partners on behalf of the CHF, an independent, non-profit philanthropic organization focused on improving healthcare delivery.

While the study found that the typical "early adopter" PHR user is male, young, college educated and earns an annual income of $75,000 or more, the biggest benefits of PHRs appear to be derived from users who are less educated, have lower incomes, or have multiple chronic illnesses, said Mike Perry, a partner at Lake Research Partners.

Among PHR users, lower income individuals are more likely to say that PHRs help them feel "more connected" to their physicians, PHR while users without a college degree asked their doctors more questions, Perry said.

Most significantly, 40% of PHR users with two or more chronic conditions said they did something to improve their health, compared to 24% of other survey respondents.

"Most health care is self care," said Sam Karp, CHF's VP of programs. Because most patients only see their physicians occasionally, access to health information appears to be an important factor in patients being more engaged in their own healthcare.

The value that chronically ill patients derive from PHRs is important in their ability to manage their health, said Joshua Seidman, an advisor in the Office of National Coordinator for Health IT.

An important recommendation for the meaningful use requirements being set by the federal government is to have patients more engaged in their care through the use of personal health records and access to their health information, Seidman said.

"Engagement is one of the five priorities of the meaningful use of health records," said Seidman during a CHF teleconference to discuss the survey results.

While more consumers are using PHRs, 75% of Americans are concerned about the privacy of their health information -- one of the biggest potential barriers to using PHRs, according to the survey.

However, privacy concerns tend to fade among consumers who use PHRs and gain value from the records.

Also, another potential barrier to more widespread use of PHRs is that 61% of non-PHRs users said they didn't think they needed online tools to handle their health.

Among consumers without a PHR, individuals are most interested in using a PHR provided by their healthcare providers (58%), followed by a PHR available from a health plan (50%), government group such as Medicare (36%), non-profit organization (35%), third-party firm such as Google or Microsoft (25%), and employer (25%).

So, what do PHR users like about their access to digital health records?

According to users of PHRs, the top five reasons for accessing their PHR is to make sure health information is correct; checking for test results; reviewing drug records online; e-mailing providers; and scheduling office visits.

The use of PHRs for accessing records is important to boosting patients' safety, said Dr. Kate Christensen, a physician and medical director of Internet services at Kaiser Permanente, which has the largest civilian installation of e-medical records in the U.S.

"PHRs are a major safety tool," she said. When patients go online to check their information, they're more likely to catch mistakes that need to be corrected by their healthcare provider, such as an error in an patient's allergy list, she said.

Also, while it's true that doctors are often faced with an increase in e-mails when patients have online access to their records, that electronic communication often replaces the need for phone calls and some office visits, said Christensen.

Also, "the more doctors encourage patients to e-mail them, the more e-mails they'll get," she said.

About the Author(s)

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee

Senior Writer, InformationWeek

Marianne Kolbasuk McGee is a former editor for InformationWeek.

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