Online health records can let you, to some extent, double-check your doctor. And in a world where physicians are busy and medical errors are epidemic, that could be important.
"Having medical records online helps me take better care of you, and helps you take better care of yourself," says Dr. Daniel Sands, senior medical informatics director at Cisco.
Online medical records may also help you if you need medical care while traveling, and can’t remember the names of your medications or diagnoses. Just access a computer, and your medical information is at your fingertips.
But even enthusiasts of online medical records admit that no system is 100 percent secure. Experts like Dr. Steven Schwaitzberg, associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, advise only allowing information online "you wouldn‘t mind reading on the front page of your local newspaper." The thought of having your personal medical records displayed for anyone with wandering eyes -- and a computer -- to see is enough to make even the most immodest person uneasy. Most people would blush if even their weight or age got out, let alone something even more private like detailed health information.
If an employer, insurance company or malicious person got their hands onto this latter type of sensitive information, it could lead to much more than simple embarrassment. Jobs could be lost, insurance claims denied and entire reputations ruined, just for starters.
That being said, I do see one major potential benefit.
It gives you the ability to police your records and make sure the information is correct. Prior to the electronic medical record, most people never laid their eyes on the mysterious medical records being kept. And you’d be surprised how often these records contain errors. Not only that, but trying to gather all of your medical records, should you ever need to, is a cumbersome process that can take weeks to complete (along with multiple trips to varying doctors’ offices and hospitals).
If your medical records are consolidated into one place, it makes it that much easier to get a second opinion or even scan your own lab results -- something which you should easily have the right to do regarding your own health.
Still, something about the direction all of this is heading has got me uneasy.
The Drawbacks of Online Health Records
You may have heard in recent months that two Internet giants -- Google and Microsoft -- have entered the consumer health care market.
By offering personal health records on the Web.
Google’s “Google Health,” for instance, is a password-protected service that stores your basic medical history and gathers relevant information connected to your health conditions.
It includes a link to help you find doctors by location or specialization, and a "virtual pillbox" that notifies you when you need to take medications and, on a positive note, warns of potential drug interactions.
Similarly, Microsoft’s “HealthVault” is a “hub of a network of Web sites, personal health devices and other services that you can use to help manage your health.” It includes personal health records along with Internet searchers tailored to your specific health questions.
On the surface, storing your health records in Web-based entities like these may sound simple. You control what information gets sent to the database, along with who gets to see it.
But a recent article in The New England Journal of Medicine brings up a good point. The authors pointed out that corporations like Google and Microsoft are not bound by the privacy restrictions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA, which is the law that is supposed to maintain patient privacy by regulating the handling of personal health information.
I don’t know about you but this is shocking news to me as I had no idea this was the case.
As a result, it’s not only hackers and insurance companies that could potentially view your medical records -- it’s also advertisers. So it’s entirely possible that you could receive a barrage of marketing for drugs and other health-care products if you use a Web-based system to store your health records.
I am not stating that this will happen, as I have no inside information that leads me to believe that, but it is important to know that these harsh federal restrictions and protections will not be enforced here.
Can You Opt Out of Online Health Records?
For the time being, using Google Health or HealthVault to store your health information is entirely voluntary. Your insurance company, hospital or doctor’s office, however, may already be storing your health information online in their own databases.
It’s definitely worth a few minutes of your time to contact your health providers and insurance company to find out just what personal information is available online. Some will only include basic test results, for instance, while omitting more personal information like substance abuse, mental health, sexually transmitted diseases, or reproductive health.
Either way, if you don’t want it online, request to have it removed.
After all, your privacy is under attack in many ways nowadays, by telemarketers, phone companies, advertisers, and technology like RFID tags, so it may be in your best interest to keep your health information under wraps while you still can.
What About Your Privacy?
I recently learned of a web site protectonlineprivacy.com that does a marvelous job of providing resources to teach you how to rapidly and inexpensively remove your details from all the major databases. I highly recommend it.