How Patients are Using Online Medical Records: ONC Study

Patients are embracing online access to their medical records, and as healthcare providers adopt new interoperability standards for electronic medical record exchange, patients are also likely to begin using apps to share their records across other devices as well.

That is one of the key findings of a 2018 survey of more than 3,100 households conducted by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).

The ONC reports that online access to medical records has grown by 24 percent since 2014, and that, in 2017, more than one-half of patients who were offered access to their online medical record by a provider or an insurer viewed that information, which translates to approximately 30 percent of the U.S. population. In addition, of the nearly one in five individuals who cared for or made healthcare decisions for someone else in 2017, one-fourth of these caregivers accessed the care recipient’s online medical records using their own login credentials.

As previous ONC surveys have found, nearly one-half of respondents reported that they did not access their online medical records. Among the reasons cited were a preference for speaking directly with the healthcare provider and a perceived lack of need to access the information online.

Approximately eight in 10 of the individuals who viewed their online medical records once or more in the past year (53 percent) reported that their records were useful and easy to understand. Patients especially appreciated the convenience of being able to complete tasks outside of normal business hours, including requesting prescription refills, making appointments, completing paperwork, communicating with providers using secure messaging, and monitoring their health and making treatment decisions using online laboratory test results and medication information.

An area of improvement identified by the survey was the need to raise awareness among patients of the availability of advanced functions that enable online medical records to be shared with designated third parties in compliance with HIPAA regulations. However, part of the problem may be that “these functionalities may also not work well in online medical records and many providers or apps may not possess the capabilities to receive and incorporate such information,” according to ONC. The agency expects that increased adoption of FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) standards by health IT developers “will enable more individuals to use apps to store, manage and transmit their health records across a variety of devices.”

The need for improvement in this area is underscored by the growing use of devices and apps such as Fitbits and electronic blood glucose meters and blood pressure monitors among the U.S. population. Approximately one-third of patients surveyed own such an electronic monitoring device, and one-fifth said they shared and discussed findings from these devices with medical professionals.

Resources from ONC to support healthcare providers in increasing consumer access to and use of online medical information include a patient engagement playbook, ONC’s Guide to Getting and Using Your Health Records and the Trusted Exchange Framework and Common Agreement.

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