Welcome to the ‘open era’ of health information

“When I graduated, my medical notes were an aide-memoire to help me treat my patients. When I joined a group practice, I realised that my notes helped my colleagues and me treat our patients. Since computerisation, my notes and health summaries have helped me to write better referrals so that colleagues outside my practice can assist me in treating patients more effectively. Now that I can share an up-to-date health summary on MyHR, I realise that my notes can help my patients to achieve better outcomes from the health system, even when I am not directly involved.”

Dr Steve Hambleton, AJGP

Five years ago, in 2014, I wrote about OpenNotes because I thought it was a new and fascinating concept. I soon discovered that giving patients access to health records triggered strong emotional reactions: patients loved it and many doctors thought it was one of the scariest ideas ever.

Fast forward to 2019, and about 90% of the Australian population has access to the national My Health Record (MyHR). According to the Australian Digital health Agency over 80% of general practices and pharmacies, 75% of public hospitals, and 64% of private hospitals have registered.

It took a while, but Australia has sorted out most of the digital teething problems. A large part of what doctors do every day – from writing prescriptions to requesting tests – is now recorded and can be viewed by patients, other health professionals and researchers.

This is only the beginning. Secure messaging is one of the next big topics on Australia’s eHealth agenda. By 2022 patients and healthcare providers can communicate and share more health data than ever before via interoperable, secure digital channels.

Nobody is expecting this to be an easy journey, but I’m looking forward to the destination! Welcome to the ‘open era’ of health information.

How one GP gives his patients access to their electronic health records

The start of Doctor Amir Hannan’s career was a rocky one. In 2000 he took over the surgery from convicted murderer Doctor Harold Shipman. On their first day, Amir and his colleague found that Shipman’s children had removed all furniture, phones and computers from the practice. Equipment had to be borrowed from other surgeries.

The practice has long since been turned around into a thriving GP clinic with a strong focus on eHealth; for the past 7 years patients have had online access to their electronic health records.

Around the world there are several projects going that allow patients to get access to their records, and Amir Hannan is one of the trail blazers.

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Dr Amir Hannan: “You can do all these things via smart phone, tablet or PC.” Image: supplied

He did his medical training at Manchester University and then trained as a General Practitioner in the north-west of England. I got in contact with him after he posted a comment on my blog post about OpenNotes, and he was kind enough to talk to me about his amazing pioneer work.

Empowering patients

Amir is passionate about the project: “I am motivated by the desire to do the very best for patients and staff by bringing out the best in all of them. Empowering them, empowers me. When they benefit, I get an immense sense of achievement. It becomes infectious and helps me to overcome any challenges I may face.”

The practice administration and clinical system he uses in his practice is called EMIS, widely used by GPs in the UK. Amir: “EMIS also provides a secure online facility for patients, called ‘Patient Access’, which allows patient access from a range of internet devices.”

What are the benefits?

Amir says the system offers many advantages:

“Benefits include a more open relationship with patients, which enables patients to feel more in control. They can book appointments online, order prescriptions online, update their contact details and access the full records if they wish. This helps patients to read what the doctor or nurse has said, see test results or letters as soon as they arrive back in the practice, check for any errors or missing data and help with completing medical and insurance forms.”

“It improves the relationship between patient and clinician, leading to a partnership of trust.

“Information buttons provide links to trusted information so that patients do not have to do a Google search. You can do all these things via smart phone, tablet or PC.”

“It improves the relationship between patient and clinician, leading to a partnership of trust. Patients use it intelligently saving their time and doctors’ time to make the system safer and more efficient.”

“Patients can send secure messages electronically, write into the surgery on paper and their comments can be added to the record or they can complete an Instant Medical History which we have recently introduced. We do not encourage email as it is not a secure means of communication and our replies could be seen by other family members which may compromise the patient’s right to confidentiality.”

“We need to do further studies to prove patients accessing their records and, most importantly, understanding them, do in fact enjoy better outcomes such as improved blood pressure control, diabetes care or reduced time off work. Anecdotally patients seem to have better compliance of treatment and we have many testimonials from patients describing their positive experiences. Such evidence may become available as more patients sign up.”

What are the risks?

Amir feels his patients are more in control of their health and care and, at least anecdotally, there seem to be some benefits. But are there any downsides?

“We take security and privacy very seriously. The software requires patients to register using their pin numbers for the service and then use passwords to get access to their records. This seems acceptable to the patients. We have not had any data breaches to date. We offer advice for patients to help them understand these issues better.”

“Very few patients ring the surgery because they do not understand something and we have not been sued for anything as a result of giving patients access to their records. In fact we are still waiting for our first complaint and that’s after offering the service for over 7 years. Currently over 2650 patients, 23% of our registered patient population, have access to their records. Records sharing is safe and does not increase litigation.”

“Every encounter afterwards can lead to patients learning more about their symptoms and how they can do more for themselves.

“It does take some time for patients to sign up for online services, and we do have an explicit consent process. Patients are asked to get their pin numbers from the receptionist, look at some of the support material which explains what records access is, and then complete an online questionnaire which confirms their understanding of the issues. Their request then has to be processed which takes about 10 minutes per patient.”

“It is a journey of discovery for patient and clinician so that every encounter afterwards can lead to patients learning more about their symptoms and how they can do more for themselves. Paradoxically, this seems to lead to a reduction in anxiety because patients, carers and family can check what has been said, see that the practice has done what it agreed to do, gain a better understanding of their health and improve their health literacy – patients worry less as a result.”

Amir’s practice offers the service for free to patients, although there is no funding in the UK to support practices to engage with their patients online. Amir: “Our implementation using the practice-based web portal has required the practice to provide its own resources. The current strategy locally has been for the market to drive innovation, which has failed completely. Funding will need to be made available to encourage innovation and enable stretched practices to invest in such tools to gain maximum benefit and to scale this.”

Tips

The UK Royal College of General Practitioners has published a guide titled Enabling patients to access electronic medical records. A guide for health professionals. Amir recommends this to anyone who is interested in setting up a similar system.

“My hope is that one day all people in the world will be able to do this. This is the future of healthcare and it is happening now! See how others are doing it, such as in the UK: PatientView or in America: Kaiser Permanente and OpenNotes.”

“I use my twitter account to share experiences with others.

“It is not easy and it takes time, resources and effort. Build links with others and collaborate with them to share experience and knowledge. Build a practice-based web portal such as ours, which helps to engage with patients and provides a mechanism of informing, signposting, engaging and empowering patients and their carers. Engage on twitter and social media – there is a great deal of interest. I use my twitter account to share experiences with others.”

“Listen to your patients and staff. Work with them and develop a strategy and a plan. Most importantly get on and do it. Don’t procrastinate or worry about what might happen – instead think about the opportunities and consequences of enabling patients to access their records and understand them.”

“My practice manager Wendy Smallwood and the patient chairs of our patient participation groups Ingrid Brindle and Eleanor Simmons are stars!”

Follow Dr Amir Hannan on Twitter.

The benefits of consumer online access to health records

Consumer access to electronic health records may not be far off. In the not-so-distant future people will look up their file from home or a mobile device. They will also be able to add comments to their doctor’s notes.

In its current version the Australian PCEHR allows limited access, but the US OpenNotes record system has gone a step further by inviting consumers to read all the doctor’s consultation notes.

Pulse+IT magazine reported that 18 percent of Australian doctors believes consumers should be able access their notes; 65 percent would prefer limited access and 16 percent is opposed to any access at all.

What are the pros and cons? Here are some of the often-mentioned arguments:

Pros

  • Improved participation and responsibility
  • Increased consumer’s knowledge of their health care plan
  • Better self-management
  • Consumers can read their notes before and after a consultation as reminder
  • Consumers can help health practitioners to improve the quality of the data, eg by adding comments
  • Consumers can better assist practitioners in making fully informed decisions

Cons

  • Consumers may interpret the data incorrectly creating unnecessary concerns
  • Increased risk of security breaches and unauthorised access
  • Unwanted secondary use of the data by eg insurance companies or governmental organisations
  • Practitioners may need to change the way they write their notes
  • Increased workload

An article in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that OpenNotes participants felt they had a better recall and understanding of their care plans. They also felt more in control. The majority of consumers taking medications reported better adherence. Interestingly, about half of the participants wanted to add comments to their doctor’s notes too.

Most of the fears of clinicians were, although understandable, ungrounded:

  • The majority of participants was not concerned or worried after reading what their doctors had written (many just googled medical terms and abbreviations)
  • Consumers did not contact their doctors more often
  • A minority of doctors thought OpenNotes took more time, others thought it was time-saving

According to the OpenNotes team transparent communication results in less lawsuits. I couldn’t find any information about the security risks of the system.

Overall, consumers were content: 99% percent preferred OpenNotes to continue after the first year. Doctors were positive too, see this video:

Culture change

Consumers have the right to know what information is held about them, and they have the right to get access to their health records. Online access therefore seems to be a logical step to exercise these rights. Although the PCEHR allows consumers to see a summary, the consultation notes cannot be viewed. OpenNotes is about sharing all consultation (progress) notes between a consumer and his/her practitioner.

I believe there are 3 trends happening that will push this development:

  • The culture of sharing data online
  • The increasing consumer participation in health care
  • Evolving digital and mobile technologies

The 3 main reasons why it will not happen overnight:

  • An attitude change towards full access takes time
  • Security and privacy concerns
  • Lack of incentives for software developers and practitioners

Improving transparency 

Online access to electronic records (viewing and commenting) will boost transparency. It will change the interaction between consumers and practitioners and may even improve quality of care. I’d love to see more trials and experiments in this area. What do you think?

Blocking social media at work is not the answer

Restricting social media usage at work is sometimes done out of fear. “We don’t want our staff to be distracted.” And: “They shouldn’t waste their time on social media.” Other understandable reasons may include perceived cyber risks or the cost of excess data usage.

An organisation that blocks social media sites may send out one or more of the following messages:

  1. We don’t trust our staff
  2. We don’t really understand what social media is all about
  3. Even though consumers are using social media for health purposes, we’re not really interested

In most cases decision makers are probably unfamiliar with social media and may see it as a threat.

Why staff should have access

Here are five reasons why health care staff should have access to sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Blogs etc:

  1. Social networks are powerful learning tools for staff
  2. Social media are increasingly used as health promotion tools (such as embedded YouTube videos)
  3. Shared knowledge accessible via social media will assist staff in finding answers and making decisions
  4. Interactions with peers and thought leaders can increase work satisfaction (and will contribute to staff retention)
  5. Participating in social media and other new technologies will raise the (inter)national profile of an organisation

When it comes to cyber security, I believe there are alternatives that are more effective than blocking social media access including upgrading and updating operating systems, updating antivirus software, improving backup procedures, clever password management and online safety training for staff.

A simple social media staff policy also goes a long way.