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Consumers slow to adopt PHR software -- for now

For PHR software to take off, providers need to sell the concept of personal health records and demonstrate their value. Neither is being done, one health care quality advocate says, but there may be hope.

Patients are not using personal health record (PHR) software, one health care quality expert and consumer advocate has found. Most patients do not know that PHRs exist -- and when they do, they are not convinced of such records' value. A Harris Interactive poll of more than 2,000 U.S. adults published June 17 confirmed much of this, noting, for example, that 42% of respondents were unaware of whether their doctor uses paper files or electronic health record (EHR) systems.

The irony is that information is the lifeblood of health care and a major driver of quality improvements, said Barbara Rabson, executive director of Massachusetts Health Quality Partners (MQHP). Her group, a consortium of patient advocates, payers, providers and public health leaders, focuses on improving both care and the patient experience. She spoke at the recent Massachusetts Health Data Consortium's health IT conference in Boston.

PHR software is in the embryonic stage right now, Rabson said. Health care leaders need to do a better job explaining that it is essential for consumers to improve or maintain their health, or else personal health records will remain an untapped technology -- despite what she said are their strong benefits to individual patients. Quick access to information helps the physician make better-informed decisions, and consumers can be more active participants in the decision making process when they can see everything onscreen instead of having to collate different data points from multiple paper sources.

Who's demanding electronic health records? Nobody's done anything to tell anyone what the value is.

Barbara Rabson, executive director, Massachusetts Health Quality Partners

Right now, consumers know little about the availability and benefits of personal health records. Consumers drove the widespread adoption of ATMs, for example, while the airline industry forced automatic flight check-in on passengers. With EHR and PHR software, no such strong drive exists, Rabson said. Combined with the U.S. government's inability to step in and fund a nationwide health IT initiative, that represents a market failure.

"Who's demanding electronic health records? Nobody's done anything to tell anyone what the value is, that's the whole point," Rabson told after her presentation on PHR software and EHR usability. "It's sort of this internal secret -- we know it's valuable, but there's been no campaign to tell people that they should demand PHRs."

Part of the issue, Rabson said, is that consumers can't quite fathom that health IT is behind other sectors, such as insurance and banking. They're accustomed to seeing their financial data flow seamlessly between institutions, and just assume that information flows from one health care provider to another. When they find out that health IT is marooned in the 1990s, it comes as a shock.

That shock, Rabson said, might be what awakens patients to take control of their medical information with personal health records. According to MQHP surveys, 40% of patients report that primary care physicians were not informed about or up-to-date with the care they received from specialists. Discontent with those situations, she said, could raise enough ire among consumers that it will drive expectations for EHR systems, and spur some to start collecting information in PHR software.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Don Fluckinger, Features Writer

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