Consumer Access and Use of Online Health Records: It Takes Two to Tango

Vaishali Patel and Erin Poetter Siminerio | September 15, 2014

As the saying goes, it takes two to tango.  An increasing number of health care providers offer new electronic tools to patients, but are patients interested in engaging online with their health records?

At the same time, the Blue Button Initiative, the meaningful use requirements in the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) all set the stage to get health information into patients’ hands to fuel greater patient engagement.

But does enough patient demand exist to justify requirements for health care providers to offer patients the capability to access their health information online?

To assess the readiness of patients to ‘accept this dance’ today and understand how to entice them out onto the floor in the future, we need to establish a baseline.  How many people are offered e-access to their data? Of those offered that access, how many actually use it and what do they want to do with it?

A new data brief, Individuals’ Access and Use of Their Online Medical Record Nationwide, begins to get to the heart of these questions. Using data collected in 2013, this brief gives us the first comprehensive look at the state of consumer access and use of online health records.

How ready are patients to ‘take a twirl’ with their data?

We found evidence that shows the critical need for consumers to have access to their online medical records so they can directly address any gaps or delays in information exchange among providers. One in three individuals reported they had to address missed hand offs among providers and delays in information being shared.

However, the data also show that as of 2013, only three in ten individuals had online access to their medical records. This is likely related to providers’ limited capabilities prior to implementation of Stage 2 Meaningful Use. We expect this percentage will grow as providers’ capabilities increase.

In an encouraging finding, the survey showed that individuals who have access to their online medical records may have more interest in using that information than is popularly thought. The threshold established for Meaningful Use Stage 2 is that at least five percent of unique individuals given access to online health records should view, download, or transmit those records at least once. In this survey, almost half of all individuals given online access viewed their record at least once.

We also see a lot of variability in what they did with that access. Nearly 3/4 used their access to monitor health, which is not that surprising. But some of the uses asked about in the survey were higher than we might have expected:

  • Nearly half of individuals who accessed their health records shared information with someone else, including with their health care provider, suggesting that their online record is potentially being used to address gaps in information exchange among providers.
  • More than a third of individuals who accessed their health records downloaded that information to a computer or mobile device.
  • About one in ten of individuals who accessed their health records online sent the information somewhere else, like an app or a personal health record, enabling them to better manage their health care needs.

Finally, we found that even at this early stage of providing individuals with access to online medical records, the public sees the value: A majority of those that accessed their online record considered the information very useful. Even among the survey respondents who did not access their medical records online, a majority viewed secure online access to those records as very or somewhat important, and this was nearly universal among those who did access their online record.

Based on these national survey findings, we now have some preliminary evidence to support the hypothesis that individuals are ready for this data dance. And as their providers learn new moves through “view, download and transmit” and other capabilities, we expect they will continue to find more willing partners among their patients.

We are planning to repeat the survey to find out how this story evolves, and to better understand how individuals’ use of health IT may help health care providers and developers along their journey to increasing patient engagement and empowerment.