Personal health records and patient portals make it easy to access your medical information using your computer or smartphone.
If you're like most people, you have a number of health concerns and may visit multiple doctors and pharmacies. Keeping track of it all can be a challenge. With a personal health record, you can gather — and manage — all that information in one easily accessible location.
A personal health record is simply a collection of information about your health. If you have a shot record or a folder of medical papers, you already have a basic personal health record.
And you've probably encountered the big drawback of paper records: You rarely have them with you when you need them.
Electronic personal health records (PHRs) remedy that problem by making your information accessible to you anytime via web-enabled devices, such as computers, smartphones and tablets.
In general, your PHR needs to include anything that helps you and your doctors manage your health — starting with the basics:
You can also add information about what you're doing to stay healthy and prevent disease, such as:
PHRs are not the same as electronic health records (EHRs), also called electronic medical records (EMRs), which are owned and maintained by doctors' offices, hospitals or health insurance plans.
EHRs typically contain the same basic information you would put in a PHR, such as your date of birth, medication list and drug allergies. But EHRs contain more extensive information because they're used by health care providers to store visit notes, test results and much more.
A PHR that is tied to an EHR is called a patient portal. In some but not all cases you can add information, such as home blood pressure readings, to your record via a patient portal. If that's the case, you may not want to create a separate, standalone PHR.
However, you may want to consider having at least some basic information on hand in case of emergency, including advance directives, which outline your decisions about health care, such as whether to use life-support machines.
You could use an app such as the Health app for iPhones, which includes Medical ID, which makes critical information available via the lock screen for use by first responders in an emergency. Medical ID can display medical conditions, allergies, medications, blood type and emergency contacts. You can also use it to indicate if you're registered to be organ donor.
It is important to make sure any apps you use are secure so that your information is kept private. Make sure any app you use requires you to enter a password and that your phone has a firewall or encryption software. Research all apps before you download them to your phone and enter your personal information.
Similar apps are available for other smartphones as well. Or you could go low tech and keep a card in your wallet or wear a medical alert bracelet.
Having a PHR can be a lifesaver, literally. In an emergency you can quickly give first responders vital information, such as diseases you're being treated for, medications you take, drug allergies, and contact information for your doctor.
If you see multiple doctors and they don't use the same EHR system, a PHR is a good way to keep all of your health information in one place.
A PHR also empowers you to manage your health between visits. For example, a PHR enables you to:
Building a complete health record takes some time. You have to collect and enter all your health information. Only a minority of doctors, hospitals, pharmacies and insurance companies can send information electronically to a PHR that isn't part of a patient portal.
In most cases, you will have to update your PHR manually each time you see the doctor, fill a prescription, have a test or go to the hospital.
Even if you use a patient portal, you still need to review the information that's added to it. The process of transferring health data electronically isn't always perfect and mistakes can happen.
Perhaps the most common concerns about PHRs are about privacy and security. To address these issues, reputable PHR systems follow industry best practices, such as making their privacy policies public and submitting to monitoring by independent organizations. In addition, federal laws have been put in place to protect the security of personal health information.
If your primary care doctor offers a patient portal, use it. The staff at the front desk should be able to tell you how to register for it. (If your doctor doesn't offer one, ask if one will be available in the future.) Then start taking advantage of its features. Most portals offer the following: