With all of their medical information in one place, patients will bear more responsibility for monitoring the accuracy and completeness of their own information. The HIPAA law grants patients access to their own records. No one has a stronger stake in using that access to ensure that all medical encounters are included and suspicious entries are questioned.
Electronic records will also empower patients to bring their own expertise to bear. Medical Web sites, chat rooms, blogs and whatever else the digital future holds help patients to ask more informed questions and pursue broader avenues for advice. With complete access to personal information, the opportunities for self-guided inquiry will explode and patients should be prepared to use them.
In the end, physicians and patients will need to know one another in new ways. As observed at a recent symposium of health information experts at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, there is something inherently personal about disease and illness. Information technology must serve the deeply human goal of alleviating that burden in a way that meets human needs.
For medicine to remain effective, it must remain personal. For it to remain so, the astonishing new tools that technology and health reform will bring must be used with great skill. Physicians will have a lot to learn, but we as patients will also have a new part to play.
Robert I. Field chairs the Department of Health Policy and Public Health at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia. He is the author of Health Care Regulation in America: Complexity, Confrontation and Compromise, a comprehensive overview of health care regulatory policy.