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Taking Your Medical Data With You

Calling this the "decade of health information technology," Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson Wednesday laid out a 10-year road map aimed at bringing medical record keeping into the 21st Century.

One goal is to provide secure electronic access to patient records so that physicians, regardless of where they're located, can quickly get information they need to treat patients.

"America needs to move much faster to adopt information technology in our health care system. Electronic health information will provide a quantum leap in patient power, doctor power, and effective health care. We can't wait any longer," Thompson said in a statement.

Thompson's remarks coincide with a report released Wednesday prepared by David J. Brailer, the new National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. The plan calls for an electronic health record system that would "enable physicians and other health professionals to electronically tap into a wealth of treatment information as they care for patient."

One of the steps will be to create an Internet portal to allow Medicare recipients access to their own information. Eventually, the plan will lead to a nationwide network for patient information.

When a system like this is in place, a patient will be able to log onto his or her own medical database to get the results of lab tests or review their medical records. Likewise, that database will be available to health care providers as needed.

Clearly it will take some time for the government and medical communities to develop, agree on and implement nationwide systems. But, in the meantime, there are some entrepreneurial companies that offer patients the ability to summarize their own medical information. I looked at two systems, neither of which comes close to the scope of what is being proposed by the government nor do they tap into physician or hospital databases. But they do at least provide patients with the ability to get their information where it's needed in a timely manner.

One system is based around a device that the patient carries with them. The other is an Internet database that patients and physicians can access.

MedInfoChip, based in Boynton Beach, Fla., sells a small device that you can wear around your neck or keep in your pocket that stores your medical information. The device is actually one of those USB drives that a lot of people attach to their key chains to transfer data between personal computers. Both PCs and Macs have USB ports and the software on the MedInfoChip works on both Windows and Macintosh computers.

The chip costs $69.95, which includes the software and 64 megabytes of memory. If you have a great deal of information to store, you can pay $99.95 for a system with 128 megabytes of storage.

To enter or access information from the chip, you plug the device into the USB port of your PC or Mac. In theory, the software is supposed to start up automatically, though that didn't happen when I plugged it into my PC or my Mac. I was, however, able to bring up the program by clicking on the virtual disk drive that appears whenever a USB drive is plugged in.

Once running, the program offers you a series of fairly straightforward questions about your health history, including past conditions, conditions of relatives and data such as your height, weight, blood pressure and lab results. Of course, a lot of people don't have access to their lab results, but it's not a bad idea to ask your health provider for a copy of your latest blood and other tests. That way, you not only know where you stand but you can compare results from one test to another to see, for example, whether your cholesterol or PSA levels (in the case of men) are getting better or worse. The program on the chip also asks about insurance information, emergency contacts and just about everything else a doctor or hospital will need not only to treat you but to bill you as well.

When you're done you can print out your records to file and take with you go to the doctor. But you can also take the chip out of the computer and put it on your person so that if you wind up at a hospital or doctor's office, you have all the information you need.

That medical facility, of course, will have to have a PC to read the information and the PC will need an accessible USB port. Some facilities have terminals rather than PCs and some PCs may be mounted in such a way as to make the ports inaccessible. Because of federal privacy laws, some medical facilities may be reluctant to let anyone — including staff — plug an external storage unit into their machines

Another strategy is to use the Internet to store your data. RedMedic, Inc., a San Jose-based company, offers a similar database, but instead of providing you the information on a USB device, all the data is entered and retrieved via the Internet.

The service, which costs $34.95 a year, has you enter similar information on a secure Web site. Users are given a card for their wallets that contains the information necessary to retrieve the data, minus your password. Doctors who are enrolled in their program and hospitals known to the company can access your information after answering some security questions that establish them as legitimate health care providers.

The advantage to this system is that you don't have to carry around or insert any devices. Your information is stored on a secure Web site and accessible from anywhere in the world by any authorized medical facility. The obvious disadvantage is that the facility needs Internet access to obtain the information from the Web site. The company also maintains a call center which can respond to doctors' phone calls and fax information if needed. Data is stored using a medical industry standard format (HL7) that is also used by hospitals, insurance companies and pharmacies, according to a RedMedic spokesman. Another problem is that a lot of people are reluctant to put health information on the Internet. Despite the security measures, there is always the possibility (or the fear) that it can be hacked.

Both of these technology solutions are good starts towards solving a real problem — getting your health data where it needs to be when it's needed. They also free your data from the clutches of your provider. After all, it's your data, not your doctor's, and you have the right to see it, move it around or share it (or not) as you see fit.

But there are some limits here. First of all, both technologies have their problems. I worry whether most hospitals or health care providers would bother inserting a USB device into a computer or looking on the Internet for data. They would probably just hand you a paper sheet and order you to fill it out. If it were an emergency situation, I wonder how many facilities would have it together to insert the plug or even access the Net. Some would, but I worry that many wouldn't.

Frankly, these early attempts are simply stop-gap measures that may benefit some patients but won't be taken seriously until there is a national system in place. The early outline for that system is now in place, but we have a long way to go.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."

By Larry Magid

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