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Digital medical records: What you need to know

Medicare beneficiaries and veterans now have online access to medical records, and before long, you may too. Dr. Carol Diamond, managing director of Markle Foundation, explains the importance of this change.
/ Source: TODAY

Imagine no more telephone tag with the doctor’s office just to get your medical records sent to a specialist. Imagine no more digging through stacks of paper to find an old immunization record.

Medicare beneficiaries and veterans now have something we all should have — the option to click a blue button to download key aspects of their personal health information. This simple step marks a significant milestone in an effort to put the power of information — your personal health information — at your fingertips.

When you go to the doctor’s office, do you get a summary of the visit afterward? Can you log in to a secure website and look up your recent laboratory results? If you are like most Americans, the answers to both questions are no.

You have the most to gain by keeping your health records accurate and up-to-date. Information plays a critical role in the quality and safety of health care you receive. And in fact, a strong majority of consumers and health care providers support the idea of providing people access to their own medical records online.

If your doctors, hospitals, pharmacy, insurer, and others that hold your own health information let you download it securely over the Internet — you would be in a better position to improve your health and get better care. Fortunately, the number of Americans who have online access to their personal health information is growing.

Medicare and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs got their blue buttons operational in about eight months — warp speed by most standards in government or large private sector organizations. Now 1 million veterans with My HealtheVet accounts and potentially 47 million Medicare enrollees can log into secure portals and click a blue button to download key parts of their medical records or claims information.

And this step by the Department of Veterans Affairs and Medicare could not be more timely. The economic stimulus bill passed by Congress says individuals should receive copies of medical records in electronic format if requested and available. The economic stimulus also puts a projected $27 billion in taxpayer money on the table for doctors and hospitals that use health information technology if they meet several requirements, including giving patients electronic copies of their information.

The incentives program is voluntary for providers and it will be phased in over the next few years. Not all health care providers will be ready at the same time. But, if this interests you, now’s a great time to talk with your doctor about online access to your records.

Privacy concerns
Without doubt, for all of this to work, there must be careful attention to privacy.

Plans for the Veterans Affairs and Medicare blue buttons include essential privacy and security policies. Markle Foundation has convened a group of experts that recommend specific practices to help individuals make informed choices about downloading their personal health information, and to emphasize sound authentication and security practices for those who provide the information. Representing health care providers, consumer and patient groups, insurers, technology companies, and privacy advocates, 50 organizations have declared their support for the Markle privacy and security practices.

In a complex health care system long confounded with hassles over trying to get vital health information available when care is being provided, here’s a simple idea: Give people a blue button.

Carol Diamond, MD, MPH, is managing director of the Markle Foundation and Chair of Markle Connecting for Health, a public-private health IT collaboration.

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