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Large Employers to Provide Online Personal Health Records

By M.L. Baker  |  Posted 2006-12-07 Print this article Print

Each employer is donating about $1 million or more for the initiative; the program is expected to be controlled by a neutral nonprofit entity.

A group of large employers, including Intel and Wal-Mart, announced a plan to supply their 2.5 million employees with online personal health records.

Each employer is donating about $1 million or more for the initiative, which will be developed by Oregon-based non-rofit OmniMedix. A version of the PHR is supposed to be available by the middle of 2007.

Participating employers include high-tech manufacturer Applied Materials, energy company BP, chip maker Intel, mailstream manager Pitney Bowes, and retailer Wal-Mart Stores. Intel CEO Craig Barrett said that the goal was to start providing PHRs to a diverse set of employees, then roll it out to other participants after seeing what worked.

Other employers have provided PHRs for their employees, but this program is different because it would be controlled by a neutral nonprofit entity, where neither health insurers or employees could access it, and PHRs could follow employees even after they leave the sponsoring company. The goal of the PHRs is to reduce health costs by stopping duplicate tests and by creating applications that would encourage employees to take better care of themselves.

J.D. Kleinke, head of Omnimedix Institute, said that there are still many, many details to be worked out, but that certain principles are clear. Patients would own the information in their records and would be able to select which parts of it to share with others. Information would be accessible over the Internet.

Privacy and security would be paramount, he said. The system would be built to verify a patient's identity before extracting information, and the information even about a single patient would be stored in separate databases to limit damage from security breaches.

In addition, this PHR system, dubbed Dossia, aims to pull patient information into a PHR directly from EMRs (electronic medical records) that are controlled by clinicians and all other places where information is stored electronically. Patients would also be able to input information manually.

But pulling information from clinicians' electronic records is easier said than done, says Craig Froude, executive VP of WebMD Health Services. His company plans to start pulling information from EMRs in the near future, he says, but any company doing so will need to approach EMR vendors one by one to set up appropriate interface.

Omnimedix's Kleinke said that connecting with EMRs is actually a low priority because too few doctors use them. Dossia will start by collecting data from the Electronic Claims Clearing House, where health care providers file insurance claims. Such "raw" data is more informative than what insurers would provide, he said.

WebMD provides PHRs and related services to constituents of more than 90 large employers and health plans. Information is entered automatically by information supplied by employers, insurers, clinical laboratories, and pharmacy benefit managers. It can also be entered manually by patients.

One client, Dell, said that more than 8,000 employees had created an online personal health record with regularly updated claims information since the program was launched in April. (The company provides benefits to about 25,000 employees.) A Dell spokesperson declined to comment on what circumstances might lead Dell to provide PHRs through a nonprofit institution.

Click here to read more about Dell's health record program.

Froude said that WebMD systems also keep information private, and that employees can also choose what information to share with which providers. He said that he did not consider Dossia a competitor because WebMD's services are not only based on PHRs. They help people choose providers, treatments, and health programs based on their personal circumstances. A PHR on its own is like an online banking system that just shows a person his balance and financial transactions, he said, likening WebMD to a financial adviser.

Privacy advocates have long denounced programs that could give insurers, employers or other parties access to individuals' medical records. Dossia hopes to sidestep this criticism by storing information in such a way that neither employers nor insurers have access to the information.

However, when asked whether Dossia might be part of employee-sponsored programs that would reward employees for staying healthy, the employers said that it could, but that employees would have to give employers access to the information voluntarily.

High-level executives representing physicians, public health, and consumers attended announcement and praised it. Intel CEO Craig Barrett also read a statement support from the Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt at the announcement.

Check out eWEEK.com's for the latest news, views and analysis of technology's impact on health care.

Monya Baker is co-editor of CIOInsight.com's Health Care Center. She has written for publications including the journal Nature Biotechnology, the Acumen Journal of Sciences and the American Medical Writers Association, among others, and has worked as a consultant with biotechnology companies. A former high school science teacher, Baker holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Carleton College and a master's of education from Harvard.
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