In search of a role for PHRs

By Jeff Rowe
10:01 AM

It’s a chicken-or-egg question: Will doctors adopting EHRs lead to a rise in the use of Personal Health Records (PHRs), or will increasing consumer demand for personal health information force reluctant doctors to go digital?

We’ve been inclined to believe that, over time, consumer demand will be the key to the HIT transition, but some experts seem to think it’s the other way around.

As this article puts it, policymakers and HIT observers note the slow rise in PHR use, but they suggest the reason is that, for one thing, patient information is still available only in fragmented form.

In the eyes of one HHS official, patients "can't easily get their information in an electronic form to flow into" a PHR. "If they're trying to use a stand-alone product and type it in all by hand, that's tough. When it becomes ... easy to download their information, I foresee interest in that area growing."

We don’t doubt there is probably some validity to this expectation, but it does smack a bit of a “field of dreams” approach to the HIT transition.

Indeed, the official goes on to claim that “People need a reason to access their PHR besides to add data. They want things they can do with their information. They want interactive applications, games, things that engage them in their health. There are more reasons to actually access and use your health information if more of these tools were out and about."

So, people would be more interested in PHRs if they could use them like a game of Angry Birds?

Perhaps the real problem in this piece is that the views expressed ascribe more daily value to PHRs than they may really have. After all, for a person in basic good health, a PHR will probably never be anything more than an electronic filing cabinet.

Conjuring up the possibility of more (and more entertaining) uses for PHRs, then, seems like an attempt to justify a policy direction rather than a sober assessment of whether that direction is taking us the right way.