Help pack a million meals for struggling seniors on 9-11. Volunteer today

Bits & Bytes

Most Popular


Digital Medical Care

Personal Health Records

Does one size fit all?

PHRs: Health History at Your Fingertips

Personal Health Records are moving away from the hall of files to the web — Lester Lefkowitz

Technology, Privacy and Security

While PHRs vary, one main difference separates most: whether they are freestanding like FollowMe or tethered like Aetna's. That difference can have an impact on privacy and security, the amount of work needed to maintain a PHR, and even the technology required.

Freestanding PHRs typically require consumers to type, scan or download their medical records. Lupfer keys in essential parts of his grandson's records and downloads scans from the boy's providers. "It's simple," he says. "It's easy to work with."

PHRs tethered to a sponsoring health plan, doctor or employer are preloaded for the individual, reducing the workload to start and maintain them. But the information loaded for consumers is usually based not on medical records but on claims or billing data, which can be prone to error.

Tethered PHRs also limit the data entered, typically to the length of time the person has been with a health plan or received care from a certain provider. Freestanding PHRs, however, are portable, allowing people permanent access. Aetna has partnered with Microsoft's HealthVault so its members can make their PHR portable and access HealthVault tools to monitor weight, blood pressure, cholesterol — and even find a clinical trial.

In today's plug-and-play world, consumers often don't need more than an account, a computer or mobile device — increasingly PHRs are introducing versions for the mobile Web—and Internet access to get instant access to a PHR. PHRs commonly let users print out portions of their medical records to share.

If your PHR is Web-based, as most are, your records are stored on the PHR sponsor's server. "We are more secure than a financial institution," says Aetna's Greden. However, your personal information can still be at risk.

"There are two separate risk scenarios," says Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum. "For medical information held by hospitals and doctors, the risk is that insiders will peek and potentially sell the data." For all online health care records, "the second-biggest risk is that the data will inadvertently leak due to a security lapse," Dixon says. "We see many more cases of leaks due to negligence than intentional hacking."

Dixon suggests opting for a PHR covered by the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), the same law giving patients rights to their medical records. Covered entities are regulated in handling patients' medical data. Without HIPAA protection, she says, consumers can lose "many key legal protections," such as doctor-patient confidentiality. According to Dixon, Google Health, HealthVault and WebMD PHRs are not HIPAA-covered.

Tips on Using a PHR

  • Read the terms of service and the privacy policy very carefully before storing your data. Some non-HIPAA-covered PHRs market your data.
  • Make sure your PHR allows you the right to delete your record.
  • If you're using a wireless connection, be sure it's encrypted (look for a small lock symbol in the upper right-hand corner of the screen).
  • Keep a printed copy of your PHR in case the records get deleted or altered.
  • Double-check the information on your PHR to make sure it is accurate and up-to-date.

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts


Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.


Social Networking

Step-by-step instructions on how to use some of the Web's most popular networking sites. Go


How to Use Your PC

Guides covering everything from setting up your desktop, to getting the most out of Excel. Go


Protect Your Digital Life

Keep your computer secure, your web surfing safe, and your inbox spam free with these tips. Go


Discounts & Benefits

Geek Squad Computing

Members save on Geek Squad services with Geek Squad® Tech Support & Guidance for AARP® Members.

AARP Discounts on ADT Companion Services

Members get 20% off NEW installation and activation of ADT® Personal Emergency Response System.

AARP Discounts on Consumer Cellular Phones and Plans

Members save 5% on monthly service and usage charges with Consumer Cellular.

Member Benefits

Members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change. Join Today


computer questions and tips

Computer Questions & Tips

Pick up some handy how-tos from this savvy group of techies. Discuss


Freebies Group

Favorite Websites & Freebies

Share your top sites for interesting information, helpful resources — and free stuff! Discuss