Author :Pete Barlas
Copyright :Investor's Business Daily
Investor's Business Daily
Stratis Bahaveolos was livid last year when his 5-year-old son, Alex, had to get an immunization shot for school.
Alex had the same shot six months earlier. Bahaveolos just couldn't prove it.
"The doctor lost the record," he said. "My son hates needles."
Bahaveolos, an information systems technician, was so disgusted he took the matter of patient records into his own hands - and onto the Web.
Two months ago, Bahaveolos started MOMR Inc., which runs MyOnlineMedical-Record.com, a Web site.
At the site, consumers can store all of their medical records online. They can be retrieved in moments from the Internet.
MOMR is one of nearly a dozen companies in the U.S. scrambling to get patient records online.
Its rivals include PersonalMD.com Inc., MedRecs Express.com Inc., WellMed Inc., HealthMagic Inc., RXData.net Integrated Health Records, 4HealthyLife.com Inc., The E-Nurse Group and Universal Medical History & Information Inc. All are privately held.
Placing medical records on the Web is an extension of patient information bracelets and medical cards, says Matt Corey, a physician assistant and vice president of MedRecs.
"This is the next step in patient care," he said.
Web companies say they can improve health care and save lives. Online patient records could be the difference between life and death for patients suffering from a heart condition, for example, says Corey.
"The need is obvious," he said. "For a patient who comes into the emergency room with an abnormal heart rate, the best thing to do is to look at an old electrocardiogram (that measures the heart). But most often, that kind of information is unavailable."
Some of the medical records sites have patients fill out an online questionnaire. Others require patients to send in their medical records, which the record keeper puts online.
The Business Angle
Many of the Web sites give patients a plastic card bearing a password and an identification number to access the information.
If a patient is involved in a serious accident, they reason, medical personnel will find the card and check the Web site before administering care.
"You'd like your doctor to be able to hit a button and have that information available before you ever walk in the door," said Barry Hieb, a physician and analyst for The Gartner Group.
Having their records online also could make life easier for patients. No good system is in place for transferring records when a patient switches doctors, says Suresh Challa, chief executive of PersonalMD.com.
Valuable as the service might be, online medical records firms aren't doing this for their health. They're looking for ways to make money. Some of these companies charge for their services. Others don't, relying instead on advertising and other fees. Universal Medical charges patients $26 to sign up online. MedRecs Express charges $35 to sign up and $25 annually thereafter.
PersonalMD and MOMR don't charge patients. Both hope to make money by selling ad space on their Web sites and by selling their services to larger health providers.
Worth Paying For?
Some analysts, though, are skeptical.
Patients won't sign up if they charge for the service, says Claudine Singer, an analyst for Jupiter Communications Inc.
"Consumers aren't going to pay for it," she said. "They already feel they are paying too much for health care."
Analysts say another hang-up is getting the records to the online storage companies. Patients have to get their medical records from doctors and hospitals before sending them on to Web record-keepers.
"It's a significant pain in the neck," Singer said.
Privacy is another sticking point. Most online patient-record firms use encryption and other security features to protect data.
Still, accidents can happen. A year ago, the University of Michigan's Medical Center inadvertently exposed patient records.
Another medical Web site, Drkoop.com Inc., has backed away from putting patient records on the Web because of privacy.
Medical records falling into the wrong hands can be damaging. In 1972, Thomas Eagleton withdrew as a vice presidential candidate after the press uncovered his medical records, which showed he had been treated three times for nervous exhaustion.
"That disclosure ruined his political career," said Gartner's Hieb.
Such disclosures can have lasting ramifications for anyone, says Jupiter's Singer.
"If Joe Blow has AIDS, he could be denied a mortgage, insurance or a promotion at work. Your life can be compromised in every level you can imagine," she said.
The privacy issue has attracted attention from the federal government.
Later this year, the Department of Health and Human Services is expected to produce guidelines on how doctors and hospitals should handle patient records.
Analysts say it's uncertain how the regulations will affect online patient record-keepers. Corey, of MedRecs, is worried the government can't deal with medical records.
He recalled the public outcry last year after President Clinton proposed setting up a national database of U.S. citizen health backgrounds and making that data available to the FBI. Clinton dropped the idea.
Online patient record keepers say their systems are secure. Doctors can't get any patient data until they provide some detailed background information, says Nicola Guy, Universal Medical's director of business development.
"We have to make sure that the physicians are credible," she said, "so
we ask questions that relate to (the patient) and the hospital where they
operate, and we check the hospital to make sure the physician exists."