Personal health records and patient portals
Medically reviewed on July 6, 2017
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.
What is a personal health record?
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.
What information goes into a PHR?
In general, your PHR needs to include anything that helps you and your doctors manage your health — starting with the basics:
- Your doctor's names and phone numbers
- Allergies, including drug allergies
- Your medications, including dosages
- List and dates of illnesses and surgeries
- Chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure
- Living will or advance directives
- Family history
- Immunization history
You can also add information about what you're doing to stay healthy and prevent disease, such as:
- Home blood pressure readings
- Exercise and dietary habits
- Health goals, such as stopping smoking or losing weight
PHRs, EHRs and patient portals
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.
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.
What are the benefits of a PHR?
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:
- Track and assess your health. Record and track your progress toward your health goals, such as lowering your cholesterol level.
- Make the most of doctor visits. Be ready with questions for your doctor and information you want to share, such as blood pressure readings since your last visit.
- Manage your health between visits. Upload and analyze data from home-monitoring devices such as a blood pressure cuff. And remind yourself of your doctor's instructions from your last appointment.
- Get organized. Track appointments, vaccinations, and preventive or screening services, such as mammograms. In fact, one study found that when parents used personal health records for their children, the children were more likely to get their preventive well-child checkups on time.
Are there drawbacks to PHRs?
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.
Will my information be kept private?
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.
How do I get started?
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:
- Appointment reminders
- Medication list
- Appointment summaries, sometimes with associated educational material
- Secure messaging with your provider
- Test results