How to Keep Your Personal Health Record

If you’ve decided that you’re ready to take the plunge and create your own personal health record (PHR), congratulations! A PHR is a powerful tool that you can use to take charge of your health, get better care and help your doctor help you.

But where to begin? How do you choose a PHR format that is easiest to organize, contains all the info you need and is there when you need it? Here’s a quick guide.

Choosing a PHR

There are three main ways to keep your PHR: on paper, using software on your computer, or online. All three are useful in their own way, but each offers tradeoffs in terms of convenience and accessibility.

Paper. Perhaps you’ve kept your health records in a paper file at your home, and whenever you needed it, you knew just where to find it. That’s a type of personal health record! Some people feel that an old-fashioned paper file or binder is the easiest way to organize their records. However, paper records can be harder to keep up-to-date, and they may not be as easy to share with your doctor during an office visit. (Be sure to have your health information organized so your doctor can review it quickly and effectively -- time is of the essence during an appointment.) And if you don’t happen to have your file or binder with you—such as in an emergency—you can’t access it.

On your computer. Several companies make software that you install on your personal computer and use to collect your PHR. You can scan and store your documents, and input your information into pre-made forms. They may offer handy features, such as summaries that you can print out and take with you to the doctor. Like paper, though, unless you carry a printout, CD or thumb drive with you, your records may not be available in a pinch. And note that doctors may be uncomfortable with records stored on thumb drives, because of the risk of computer viruses.

Online. Most new PHR products are web-based. You create a password-protected account on a secure website, and store your information in the “cloud.” Online PHRs are ideal for sharing and accessibility: They’re available wherever you have internet access, using your phone, tablet or computer. And your doctor—or anyone else you authorize—can access your records when needed. Some people may have worries about privacy or security of their health information, however.

Who offers PHRs?

Just as PHRs are available in different formats, you can get them from various providers. Some employers and insurance providers offer PHRs, which may be linked to your insurance records. These PHRs may be free or low-cost to you, but you may not be able to take your records with you if you change jobs or insurance plans. (And insurance companies may access and use your data.)

Similarly, some hospitals or medical practices that use electronic health records (EHRs)—even some pharmacies—offer PHRs to their patients. These can be especially convenient, in that information such as your labs, prescriptions and office visit notes may be added to your PHR automatically. The downside is that you may be able to access only a snapshot of your records, and it might not be possible to add your own information or records from other health care providers.

Alternatively, many independent vendors offer PHRs, some for free, others for a fee.

Questions to ask when choosing a PHR

Regardless of who provides your PHR, asking the right questions is key as you decide which PHR product is right for you. The American Health Information Management Association recommends that you consider these 12 things:

  • Does a PHR provide all the information I need for a complete health history?
  • Is information automatically added to the PHR from any other records (i.e., insurance, employment, or care)? If so, what information is added, and how?
  • Can I delete, correct or add information? How?
  • Does the PHR sponsor have ownership rights to my collected information?
  • Can the PHR sponsor sell my information to anyone for any reason? If so, how can I protect my privacy? Can I ensure that my information isn't sold to another party?
  • Will my information be used for employment or insurance coverage decisions (i.e., to determine insurance eligibility)?
  • Who has access to the information in my PHR?
  • Can I choose to give my doctor, dentist and other caregiver access? How do I control the sharing of my information?
  • How will my information be protected from unauthorized use?
  • If I am no longer employed/insured by the entity that stores my PHR, can I still continue to use it?
  • How can I transfer my information to another PHR sponsor (i.e., a new insurer or new vendor)?
  • Are there any fees associated with giving my doctor, dentist or other caregiver access to my PHR?

A note on privacy

You may be familiar with HIPAA, the law that protects the privacy of your health records. HIPAA limits how healthcare providers, insurance plans and employers can share and use your health information. The health records kept at your doctor’s office are covered by HIPAA, as are any PHRs they provide. But PHRs offered by employers or independent vendors are not. That means those PHRs are protected only by their own privacy notices and practices, which can change at any time. No matter who supplies your PHR, whether an independent company, physician or health plan, take a close look at its security and privacy policies.

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