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You Can Store Medical Records on Your Phone. Is That Healthy?

Encrypted electronic options for iPhones, Androids weren’t possible a decade ago

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Hunting down medical records is enough to give anyone a migraine.

You likely see a primary care physician, and as you get older, perhaps one or more specialists. But these doctors may not all be part of the same health care system.

Meanwhile, a separate laboratory or clinic may handle your bloodwork. Your last surgical procedure took place in a hospital. You’ve gone elsewhere for immunizations and to fill prescriptions.

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Worse, office workers at your health care providers are overstretched, and at times you must navigate a bureaucratic maze to reach someone who can help. While you might be able to chase down your records online, each doctor group may have a separate web-based patient portal.

Still, you can probably find many of your medical records more easily than you could a decade ago, when almost two-thirds of physicians were using fax machines to share information. That’s because of a 2009 federal law, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, that dispensed incentives to providers for digitizing health records and then, seven years later, penalized large hospitals that hadn’t adapted.

In 2016, the 21st Century Cures Act continued to smooth the way for electronic health information sharing, and consumers are just now seeing the results of that law. Yet even today, your electronic medical records are all over the place.

Apple prescribes a new, personalized path

Apple set out to address the epidemic of scattered health records in 2018 by letting people with an iPhone download those records into the Health app on their phone. Nowadays, the health records feature on the iPhone is available to patients at more than 800 institutions with more than 12,000 locations in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, the company says.

How it works: A direct, encrypted connection is created between participating providers and a patient’s iPhone so people can get a centralized view of their allergies, clinical vitals, conditions, immunizations, lab results, medication records and procedures in one place.

The feature is based on something called Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources (FHIR), a standard for the sharing of electronic medical records among different computer systems. Apple says its Health app data is never shared with any third party without the user’s explicit permission.

Android has alternatives in others’ apps

Google has no direct equivalent to the health records feature on the iPhone, but third-party Android alternatives are available. Among the most notable is from the Commons Project Foundation. 

In 2020 the Geneva- and New York City-based nonprofit created a free CommonHealth app that’s available in the Google Play store. The Commons Project is part of an industry coalition known as the Carin Alliance, whose goal is helping consumers and authorized caregivers “access more of their digital information with less friction.”

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JP Pollak, who cofounded the Commons Project and is the app’s creator, says that about 1,400 health systems representing about 15,000 providers now work with CommonHealth. As with Apple’s Health app, records are stored and encrypted on your phone, not in the cloud, and similar promises are made about not sharing the data in the app without your consent.

“No matter how seriously we take [privacy] and no matter what protections are put in place … we’re regularly hearing concerns around ‘What if I lose my phone? All of my records are there. Do other companies have access to my records? Does your company have access to my records?’ ” Pollak says.

“The reality is that the data comes straight from the medical provider to your device and [is] encrypted by the device and a passcode you create for your app,” he says. Still, “from my perspective, people are right to be asking those questions.”

Knowledge of health records can be powerful

Having medical records on a device you carry almost everywhere is convenient, something many folks with digital coronavirus vaccination cards on their phones discovered during the pandemic. These SMART Health Cards, as they’re known, make use of secure QR codes when a person wants to verify and share their vaccination history or test results.

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Apple cites a pre-pandemic survey from University of California San Diego Health: 90 percent of respondents who had access to their health records on their smartphones indicated this enhanced their understanding of their own health, helped in conversations with their clinicians, or improved the sharing of personal health information with friends and family. UC San Diego Health was one of the original dozen medical providers to make patient records available on the iPhone. 

These apps aren’t a one-stop shop

While you can store medical records in Apple Health or the CommonHealth app, you cannot message caregivers through these apps to ask questions, schedule appointments or seek prescription refills. And you can’t interpret test results without consulting your doctor.

“I think that’s still a fair question to ask: ‘So what — what does it mean?’ ” says Christopher Longhurst, M.D., chief medical and digital officer at UC San Diego Health. The health care system makes patient records available through both the CommonHealth app and Apple Health. “We’re still learning better how to generate patient advice with that data.”

You’ll have to continue to visit your providers’ patient portals or download their apps. Before you can take advantage of the health records feature in these Android or Apple health records apps, you must have an account with at least one of your local patient portals.

Your medical records can travel with you

If you have a chronic medical condition, from arthritis to diabetes to high blood pressure to high cholesterol, keeping your health records on your smartphone can be useful, especially if you're traveling overseas and suddenly need to see a doctor.

Closer to home, having copies of your health records can make switching doctors easier. But getting records from your old physician to a new one, even as you change health care systems, is getting easier without toting it yourself, Longhurst says.

“This idea of what we call patient-centered interoperability — which is kind of like ‘I download my medical record from here and then I upload and give it to here’ — it turns out patients don’t really want to do that,” he says. “They want their doctors to talk to each other.”

How to keep track of your health records on your smartphone

If you are comfortable downloading health records onto your phone, follow these steps to proceed.

On an iPhone’s Health app:

1. Tap the icon for the Health app on your phone. It has a red heart ❤️ in the upper-right corner of a white background.

2. Tap the Browse icon at the bottom right of the app screen.

3. Scroll to the bottom in the Health Records section and tap Add Account.

4. Scroll down the list of suggested medical organizations, which may show providers in your general location. Tap the name of the hospital or provider whose records you seek. If you don’t see a match, enter the name of the hospital, network or location in the search box at the top of the screen, then tap the name of your provider, if found.

5. Tap Connect Account, which brings you to the login for the health institution. Enter your username and password for that organization, if you have one. Some providers, though not all, will let you sign up for an account within the Apple Health app. If not, you may have to set up a patient account on a computer.

Depending on the provider or how you set things up, you may have to enter a two-factor authentication code that the organization sends to your smartphone for security purposes. You may have to acknowledge the specific types of records you are willing to share with Apple Health.

Check off the information types that apply or remove those that don’t. You may be given the option to choose how long you would like Apple Health to have access to your information.

Worth noting: As part of its iOS 16 software update, Apple added a section to the Health app where you can track your medications, but you must manually add them. You may receive suggestions based on any medications already stored inside Health Records as you compile the list.

On an Android phone using the CommonHealth app:

1. Open the CommonHealth app and enter the passcode for your account or authenticate via the biometrics on your device.

2. Tap Records at the bottom-right corner of the app.

3. Tap Add Health Records at the top of the screen.

4. Tap Vaccination or Test Record to add a SMART Health Card or Health Record to add health records from a listed provider. If you choose the latter, scroll the list to find a matching institution or enter the name of a hospital, network or provider in the search box at the top of the screen. Tap a match, if found.

5. Tap Add Health Data and enter the login information for the institution.

This story, originally published September 14, 2022, has been updated to reflect the launch of Apple's latest operating system.

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