Personal health records would empower patients, boost care quality, reduce costs

As many as 98,000 people die each year as a result of medical errors. These deaths are preventable and are often the result of incomplete information or oversights due, paradoxically, to information overload. Electronic medical records can enable healthcare providers to get a more comprehensive view of patients’ health histories, making care more accurate and less costly.

Personal health records (PHRs) are a critical piece of this puzzle as we move forward in an effort to improve the quality and cost-efficiency of the healthcare system in this country. Last month, we introduced a new version of the Personalized Health Information Act. This legislation will empower consumers to be better informed about their personal health while improving communication with their healthcare providers. The bill is an important step in creating a public-private partnership to promote the use of secure, transportable and consumer-controlled personal health records and patient-communication services for Americans. Unlike many divisive, highly charged healthcare proposals, PHRs enjoy broad-based, bipartisan support.

Our bill would require that the secretary of Health and Human Services create a personal health record incentive program and trust fund to expedite the use of personal health records by Medicare beneficiaries and other patients and their healthcare providers. PHRs can give patients access to and control over their personal health data while ensuring that providers have all of the information they need at the point of care if the patient consents. The bill is viewed by industry experts as a necessary first step toward the adoption of a nationwide electronic medical records system.

Why are PHRs so important? Because if you’re 73 years old, traveling, and your aged eyesight causes you to accidentally take the wrong medication, you want the urgent-care physician to know your medical history as you lie unconscious and unable to relay the information. How will doctors know how to treat you if they’re unaware of the six medications you’re on — one of which is for your heart arrhythmia and another to treat an allergy?

PHRs provide physicians with near-instant access to a patient’s medical history — including diagnoses, allergies and prescriptions. Doctors do not have to rely on piles of paperwork or a patient’s ability to communicate. With Web-based PHRs, they can quickly and easily obtain your information — and thus avoid problems such as repeat diagnoses and dangerous drug interactions, issues that cause the deaths of tens of thousands of people every year in the United States.

Equally importantly, PHRs can be valuable tools to enhance doctor-patient communications. With a PHR, patients would no longer have to fill out that dreaded clipboard in the waiting room. And they could receive clinical reminders or other important messages from their providers, such as notices that they are due for preventive screenings or that it’s time to renew a prescription.

Polls show that people want the conveniences of technology to be a part of their healthcare relationships. A Wall Street Journal poll last fall found that 75 percent of respondents want to be able to e-mail their doctors. Seventy-seven percent would like to be able to receive clinical reminders. Greater than two-thirds would like to be able to get test results and schedule appointments online. 

PHRs are a vehicle to enhance the doctor-patient relationship, but only if doctors use them with patients. There are currently many PHR options available to individuals, but few have taken advantage. The key, tackled by our bill, is to make sure physicians use the PHR with the patients. That’s when PHRs start really delivering value to consumers.

Widespread use of PHRs offers opportunities to cut down on duplicative testing, as results are available to all providers. By enabling patient-specific reminders, PHRs can help drive up use of cost-effective preventive care; currently, Americans on average receive only half of recommended preventive screenings. PHRs also allow for more active, collaborative, continuous
management of chronic diseases like diabetes.

We can do this for all Americans. By universally adopting PHRs, we can not only save lives, we can save money.

And as individuals begin to expect PHRs to be a part of their healthcare experience, consumer demand will ratchet up the pressure to move healthcare into the digital age with other technologies, like electronic medical records and e-prescribing.
As our population advances in age, particularly as the Baby Boomer generation enters retirement, greater and greater pressure is being placed on our healthcare system. As the system currently exists, we lack the resources to adequately fund the solutions we need — a problem that stirs much of the other healthcare debates today.

Last year, Rand Corporation, a research think tank, estimated that moving to an all-electronic record system would have the potential to save the U.S. healthcare system $77 billion annually on efficiency alone. How many solutions out there have the potential to both improve quality and save us money?

There are so many healthcare-related issues out there dividing people along party lines. Here we have one issue upon which both sides can agree. Let’s not hesitate to make progress where we can, and let’s join together to move the Personalized Health Information Act forward.

Kennedy is a member of the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education  Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee. Reichert is the ranking member of the Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment Subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee.


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