Technology

Crafting Employees' Personal Online Health Records


Companies such as Intel, Wal-Mart, and Pitney Bowes offer Web sites that compile workers' private medical histories—and may motivate change

Eric Dishman, a 42-year-old Intel executive who suffers from a chronic kidney disease, recently got a bit of pleasant news. Test results from his doctor showed he had driven his cholesterol level down to a normal range even after being warned it wasn't likely to happen. A "combination of exercise and eating a whole lot more fruits and vegetables," did the trick, says Dishman, director of health innovation and policy at chipmaker Intel (INTC). The improvement in Dishman's health was also the result of a three-month-old program at Intel to furnish its employees with secure online "personal health histories." Intel employees can access their medical histories over the Web in order to track changes in their health and perhaps detect improvements. "I've never had access to my own health history with my kidney disease until now," Dishman says. Intel is one of four companies using online personal health records from Dossia, a consortium of companies including Intel, Pitney Bowes (PBI), Vanguard Health Systems, and Wal-Mart Stores (WMT). Pitney Bowes offers the records to some employees, too, and is in the process of expanding the program to the whole company. About 7 percent of Americans have now used personal health records, nearly double the percentage a year ago, according to an Apr. 13 report from the California HealthCare Foundation. Personal-health-record software from Dossia, as well as from Google's (GOOG) Health system and Microsoft's (MSFT) HealthVault, takes the place of pen-and-clipboard medical histories that patients fill out before doctor visits. The information is different from that kept in electronic medical records, which can be difficult for patients to transfer among heath care providers. In addition to patients' medical histories, personal health records also contain information about drug prescriptions and lab results. employees control personal data

In theory, by giving employes an online tool to monitor their health, companies can cut health-care costs without raising concerns about data privacy. Doctors have better information with which to recommend treatments. "Employees who are engaged in their own health and are more demanding consumers of health care will save money," says Colin Evans, president of Dossia and a former Intel employee. Pitney Bowes began contemplating creation of personal health records several years ago when now-retired Chief Executive Michael Critelli wanted to improve employees' health. "One of the challenges Mike saw is that people don't have a good way of getting their entire medical [history] in one place," says Andrew Gold, executive director of global benefits planning. Dossia aggregates health information from doctors' offices, health plans, pharmacies, and labs—plus data that employees enter themselves—into a secure Web site. The information is private to employees; employers can't see it. And when employees leave a company, they take their personal health records with them. "The key is you control it," says Gold. What isn't clear yet is how interested employees will be in personal health records supplied by private companies. According to the California HealthCare Foundation survey of 1,849 Americans, 25 percent said they want to use personal health records sold directly by technology companies. About half said they favor systems distributed by physicians or insurers. A further challenge for employees is to find doctors who will submit information to the record systems, as the physician for Intel's Dishman did. Personal health records aren't a cure-all: Employees must do the hard work of living healthfully. Yet the software can encourage positive changes. In the process of lowering his cholesterol, Dishman says he lost 33 lbs. in six months. "I haven't felt this strong, ever," he says.

King is a writer for Bloomberg Businessweek in San Francisco.

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