More Patients Will Soon Have Free Access to Their Health Records

For many patients, accessing their health records can be a challenge. They may have to pay a fee or wait months for their records to arrive in the mail, which can be frustrating when someone has an urgent question about their health. Doctors and facility administrators may not be used to sending and sharing their notes with their patients, but that’s all about to change.

The Department of Health and Human Services imposed a rule that would require providers to remove these barriers, so patients can access their records and doctors’ notes quickly and for free, helping more people take charge of their health. The new mandate was expected to go into effect on November 2nd. However, just last week, the government extended the deadline to April 5th, 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Many providers say they’ve spent months trying to digitize their records and make them available to patients to comply with the law, but now that the deadline has been pushed back, they say they could’ve used that time to respond to the crisis at hand. 

Let’s explore how this rule might change the patient-provider relationship.

Free, Fast Electronic Health Records

HHS’s Information Blocking Rule, or the ONC, was finalized last March as a way to help more patients and consumers take control of their health. Under the law, patients have a legal right to access their electronic health information; however, some restrictions apply, such as psychiatric notes. Even though patients can access their records, they tend to encounter obstacles along the way. By issuing the ONC, the government is seeking to do away with restrictions and barriers that can limit access to this information.

As part of the rule, health IT developers are required to create application monitoring interfaces (APIs) that patients can use to access their records on their smartphones. Hospitals and doctors must provide a software access point to their patients, so they can log on and download these records to their phone or computer in a timely manner.

For many people, accessing their records would be the same as checking their bank account online, when this rule finally goes into effect.

Without access to this information, many people may feel as if they are flying blind when it comes to their health. They may lose track of important information or forget what was discussed during their appointment. This is especially true for older Americans, those with multiple chronic conditions, and people with unique or rare diseases.

That was certainly true for Britta Bloomquist of Duluth, Minnesota, who suffers from a rare type of arthritis that took years to diagnose. She says she’s been reading her doctor’s notes for years after cutting through layers of bureaucratic red tape.

Discussing the new rule, she said, “It means information about your care can no longer be hidden from you. And you have a say in your care.”

Studies show patients that read their notes and records tend to better understand their health than those that don’t. They are more likely to follow up with treatment recommendations, take their prescription medication, and feel more in control of their health.

“I’ve become a health nerd,” Bloomquist said. “Reading the notes has kept me on the same page as my providers about what’s going on.”

When patients have access to these records, they can also help spot medical errors that can affect the overall care they receive. Cait DesRoches, director of OpenNotes, a Boston-based group working for greater access to patient notes, said, “A clinician has eyes on thousands of notes, but a patient has eyes only on one, so it has powerful safety implications.”

On the other hand, some providers say opening these records to the public could do more harm than good. It could lead to a flood of unnecessary questions as patients start analyzing every detail of their records, which often contain medical jargon that might throw some people for a loop.

However, that hasn’t been the case for Dr. Marlene Millen of UC San Diego Health. She’s been sharing this information with her patients for years and says, “I did not get a big bump in questions at all.” She says many patients didn’t bother to read their records, while others would do their research ahead of time, so they knew what to expect when they came in for their next appointment, which can help save time.

Delaying the Inevitable

Just days before the ONC was scheduled to go into effect, the Trump Administration delayed the order until April 5th, 2021, throwing the entire industry off guard. Teams have been working tirelessly building new APIs and uploading their records online only to find out the original deadline has been pushed back.

For many providers, this meant spending more time on software than helping people suffering from the coronavirus.

Dr. Millen was less than thrilled with the news. “We spend all this time getting ready and we could have spent that time doing other things like working on the pandemic,” she said. The government says this gives providers another five months to update their records, but for some, the changes can’t come soon enough. 

Your patients will soon have greater access to their medical records, helping them take ownership over their health. You can also use these tools to build more trust and rapport with your patients, so you can work together towards the same goals. 

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