Free The Data: Patients As Consumers

Standard APIs are beginning to remove the barriers to effective Personal Health Record systems.

Mark Braunstein, Professor of the Practice, Georgia Institute of Technology

December 24, 2013

4 Min Read

Patients seeking to take control of their health data are starting to get the tools to do so.

My last column discussed the emerging liberation of health data that has traditionally been "imprisoned" in proprietary electronic health record (EHR) systems. I pointed to the Meaningful Use Stage 2 requirements for providers to actually share data with their patients and the unveiling of the first few app stores from EHR vendors as a harbinger of things to come.

Parallel changes have been taking place in the personal health record (PHR) space for quite a while now. The topic of personal health records was extensively covered for Information Week back in April 2012 by Anthony Vecchione. Anthony identified several approaches to a PHR based on technology and sponsorship.  Microsoft's HealthVault is arguably the best known example of a free, standalone PHR that is managed exclusively by the patient. Of course, this is a space where Google Health played until its PHR shut down in 2011. (Google isn’t out of the health space, however, as demonstrated by its recent announcement of Calico, headed by Apple and Genentech chairman Art Levinson, to develop technologies to tackle health issues related to aging.)

Historically, the standalone PHR approach has been impeded by the need for patients to enter their own health information, a task even my Georgia Tech graduate students typically find formidable. Major insurance plans like Aetna get around this issue by constructing a PHR for their members using data from their claims. The third approach is PHRs tethered to either the physician or health enterprise EHR where, once again, making the patient's data available is simplified by built-in integration.

However, Meaningful Use Stage 2 contains the View, Download, Transmit (VDT) requirement essentially mandating that providers offer patients a vehicle for accessing their electronic records.  This essentially removes the onus from the patient and puts it on the health IT vendor community, which is responding with a variety of solutions. For example,, originally developed by EHR vendor Medical Informatics Engineering, is now provided as a complete standalone VDT solution for both patient access to their data as well as sharing data they record with their provider.

To their credit, PHR vendors have actually been innovating well ahead of Meaningful Use. Back in 2009, Aetna unveiled SmartSource, a personalized search engine that leverages each patient’s PHR data.  HealthVault was launched even earlier, "way back" in 2007. For most of that time, HealthVault has offered an API so that developers could offer web apps that patients can use to leverage their PHR data. Technically inclined readers might enjoy Eric Gunnerson's 14-part series of blog posts on developing HealthVault apps.

Today, according to the HealthVault site, patients can use 141 free web apps, and 226 devices can upload data to their PHRs. Most importantly, in keeping with the requirements of VDT, patients can now upload their medical records into HealthVault in the XML formats -- Continuity of Care Document (CCD) or the older Continuity of Care Record (CCR) -- that certified EHRs must be able to export.  Veterans can do the same using the VA’s Blue Button ASCII text file export format.  Presumably, the next-generation Blue Button+ format will soon also become a common vehicle for EHR-to-PHR data transfer.

Finally, PHR apps are becoming increasingly sophisticated.  The American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association offer apps with both patient and provider faces that facilitate a patient-provider team in the management of their target conditions.

Georgia Tech and our Interoperability & Integration Innovation Lab (I3L) worked on something similar through an ONC-sponsored HIE Challenge Grant in Rome, Ga. We developed MyJourney Compass, a HealthVault app that provides newly diagnosed cancer patients with highly personalized information and the capability to share in their own care by recording key symptoms for electronic transmission back to their oncologist.  The success of this project is leading to efforts to do the same for patients with different conditions and in other venues around our state.

PHRs are also of interest to employers who, after all, may often pay for the consequences of poor healthcare practices by their employees.  A number of major companies support Dossia as the PHR solution for the workforce, which includes its own app store and support for data uploads from devices. Taking advantage of its employer sponsorship, Dossia provides employers, plan administrators, and providers with population health management tools including behavior-change and care compliance programs that can spur employee engagement through game dynamics, social engagement, incentives, and messaging.

Free the data and good things can happen!

Happy Holidays as we look forward to an even more exciting New Year in health IT.

About the Author(s)

Mark Braunstein

Professor of the Practice, Georgia Institute of Technology

Mark Braunstein is a professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology, where he teaches a graduate seminar and the first MOOC devoted to health informatics. He is the author of Contemporary Health Informatics (AHIMA Press, 2014) as well as Health Informatics in the Cloud, a brief non-technical guide to the field. Mark has been involved in health IT since the early 1970s when he developed one of the first ambulatory electronic medical record systems at a pioneering patient-centered clinic at the Medical University of South Carolina. After many years in the commercial sector, he joined Georgia Tech in 2007.

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