A corporate announcement was made this week that really could revolutionize healthcare consumers’ engagement in their electronic health records. And therein lies a tale.
At the outset, I should clarify that I have no desire whatsoever to promote any particular vendor solution—patient-facing or otherwise. And that goes double for any gigantic global software or device vendor. Indeed, the vendor involved here—the Cupertino, California, based Apple Inc.—has no need for my promotion of its products, or anyone else’s.
That having been said, something has happened that might possibly be a game-changer when it comes to patients’ engagement around their health records. For decades now, industry observers have predicted that the PHR—personal health record—concept would emerge fully and thrive. I’ve been in healthcare publishing for nearly three decades now, and that prediction has been around as long as I’ve been in the industry.
But the reality has been years of frustration and struggle. While no one is “against” PHRs, the question has been, who will create them, maintain them, and ensure their accuracy, availability, and interoperability? And, largely, the answer has been, “almost no one.” Physicians in practice, and their staffs, simply don’t want to deal with the hassle and the time investment involved. Doctors are already overwhelmed, and simply don’t want the responsibility; and neither do their staffs. Hospitals and health systems are in a bit better position, but even they continue to face problems maintaining PHRs. Meanwhile, health plans would like to manage PHRs, but let’s be honest: most healthcare consumers don’t rust their health plans enough. Consumers also keep getting pulled around from one health plan to another by their employers, so there’s that problem, too. And, on top of everything else, consumers/patients have found working with PHRs to be confusing, awkward, and frustrating. So a phenomenon whose success was predicted 25 years ago, has remained mired in a welter of practical and process issues.
So Wednesday’s announcement that Apple is launching a feature that will allow consumers to see their medical records right on their iPhones, offers the potential to become a true game-changer when it comes to consumer/patient engagement around healthcare consumers’ own records.
As Managing Editor Rajiv Leventhal noted in a report published on Wednesday, Apple executives released an announcement that day that stated that “The updated Health Records section within the Health app brings together hospitals, clinics and the existing Health app to make it easy for consumers to see their available medical data from multiple providers whenever they choose. Johns Hopkins Medicine, Cedars-Sinai, Penn Medicine and other participating hospitals and clinics are among the first to make this beta feature available to their patients.”
“Indeed,” Leventhal noted in his report, “Apple is testing this feature out with 12 hospitals in all, inclusive of some of the most prominent healthcare institutions in the U.S. The tech giant said it has “worked with the healthcare community to take a consumer-friendly approach, creating Health Records based on FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources), a standard for transferring electronic medical records.” As a result, he reported, “Now, consumers will have medical information from various institutions organized into one view covering allergies, conditions, immunizations, lab results, medications, procedures and vitals, and will receive notifications when their data is updated. Health Records data is encrypted and protected with the user’s iPhone passcode, the company stated.”
In making the announcement, Jeff Williams, Apple’s COO, said in a statement on Jan. 24, “Our goal is to help consumers live a better day. We’ve worked closely with the health community to create an experience everyone has wanted for years — to view medical records easily and securely right on your iPhone. He added, “By empowering customers to see their overall health, we hope to help consumers better understand their health and help them lead healthier lives.”
So, how is this all going to work? Christina Farr, in a report on Jan. 24 in CNBC online, put it this way: “If you've ever struggled to access your medical information, like a lab test or immunization, Apple is trying to make your life easier. On Wednesday, the company is releasing the test version of a new product that lets users download their health records, store them safely and show them to a doctor, caregiver or friend. It all works,” she wrote, “when a user opens the iPhone's health app, navigates to the health record section, and, on the new tool, adds a health provider. From there, the user taps to connect to Apple's software system and data start streaming into the service. Patients will get notified via an alert if new information becomes available.”
The key to all this? It fits into consumers’ normal device use processes. That’s the equivalent of integrating alerts and other elements into physicians’ and nurses’ clinician workflows. And that’s all-important. In addition to the structural and other issues around PHRs, the key reason they’ve not taken off in any significant way is that accessing and working with one’s PHR, as an consumer, has involved engaging in a set of processes that is outside one’s normal activity flow. How many busy consumers want to engage in processes completely separate from their normal interactions with technology?