Access to eHealth records for Patients

Some of you wanted to hear about my research project. I am working on a research proposal about making information available to patients with metastases. Lately I’ve been looking into the topic of eHealth. eHealth is about developing a digital information infrastructure to support the health care needs of patients and professionals.

In The Netherlands, we have a national eHealth infrastructure which can support hospitals with standards and data exchange formats. There is also a framework for developing patient portals based on the electronic health records (electronic patient dossiers – EPDs- as we call them here). But the development of eHealth projects is done at the local or regional level. And there they run into very practical problems: a lack of expertise, vendor lock-ins and complex organizations. Not to mention security issues and risks and limited budgets.

I’ve always focused on the issue of getting digital access to your personal data  (which is a key concept behind many systems now in use such as DigiD and Mijn But I have not worked in the health care sector before.

On January 21st I attended a meeting about patient portals. Besides myself, there were two patients who asked questions. Many information managers from hospitals were present as well. It is clear that they are struggling to make this work. A national organization – Nictiz – has developed infrastructural building blocks needed to build a patient portal. But in practice, it is difficult to make this work. 

Here’s a great video from Australia about their eHealth system.

Makes it look easy, doesn’t it?

At the moment, most hospitals have EPDs (systems with medical records) which are primarily focused on supporting the medical staff in the registration proces. They frequently need to share information with other medical professionals. But who can access the patient’s medical records? By law, a patient needs to give permission before his or her medical records can be shared by other health care professionals. To enable this, the website offers an online registration form so that patients can indicate which professionals can access their health records.

Two initiatives seem promising: is a patient-oriented portal to which you can subscribe as patient. But only a few hospitals are involved. At the meeting, the founder explained how he set up this project when his daughter was diagnosed with a chronic disease at age 3. Another initiative is Iederedagbeter, an initiative by someone with whom I worked in the past who is also chronically ill.

To me, it seems that giving access to the patient is the first step. Here is where my personal experience and professional expertise can help others. For starters, there is no overview of which hospitals give access to patients. By accident I discovered that the AVL has a patient portal but I still have no access (not for metastases I think). This is an example of why it is so difficult for patients to find the information they (we) need: it is fragmented and not communicated.

This is a problem that needs solving. The way I see it, any portal could work as long as the EPD systems can provide the data and files. And that’s where I suspect the real problems lie. In other sectors most systems are closed – vendors don’t want to allow other vendors access to their systems. This is why the Dutch government is a strong advocate of open standards.  But it is up to the individual organizations who procure systems to use the standards that we’ve agreed on.

So the first issue is how can we force vendors to comply with open standards and to provide information (web)services. This is really a pre-requisite for patient portals to work. It also makes more sense to me to place the patient portals outside the domain of hospitals. Perhaps patient advocacy organizations can get involved in the discussion. The second issue is how to organise the information so that it is accessible . And again, this is where patient organizations can make a real contribution. So where should we start? Let’s turn the system around and start with what patients need.  Perhaps you can help me spread this post!