David E. Williams

Are the Benefits of Personal Health Records Worth the Costs?

In the context of skyrocketing health care costs, the challenge for companies has shifted from cutting costs to controlling the annual rate of increase. Many HR decision makers are contemplating purchasing personal health records (PHRs) for employees as part of a larger effort to improve employee health and contain those annual increases.

Before you invest in a company-wide system, here’s what to consider regarding the benefits of personal health records.

What Is a PHR?

As recently as 20 years ago, a PHR consisted of an index card with a list of medications and allergies. Sometimes the card would even be laminated to keep it from getting destroyed in a wallet or purse. These PHRs were particularly useful for people on many medications. The list of allergies and adverse reactions to pharmaceuticals was critical any time an employee engaged with the medical system to ensure that they were not given a substance that could provoke a negative reaction, like anaphylactic shock.

Today, the laminated index card has been digitized. A PHR may still be carried in a wallet or purse, but it will likely be stored as data in a smartphone app. Compared to their index card ancestors, digital PHRs can store a larger volume of information.

It’s important to differentiate a PHR from an EMR, or electronic medical record. The latter is a complicated platform involving billing and claims information in addition to details regarding a particular employee’s health history. Whereas EMRs are most often accessible only to health care providers and billing staff, PHRs are most often held and managed by the individual.

A company may invest in a third-party application that can be integrated into an overall benefits package. The business itself would be responsible only for purchasing the system, not for building and maintaining it.

What Are the Benefits — and Downsides — of Offering Personal Health Records?

Employees are the primary beneficiaries of PHRs. With their health information available in portable form, an employee enjoys the security of knowing that accurate information can be accessed quickly in the case of an emergency or if the employee suffers an accident or illness away from home. The secondary beneficiaries are hospitals and doctors, who are better able to make quick and informed decisions about a patient’s care plan.

Employers may also benefit. In theory, if a large enough proportion of the population carries PHRs, the benefits of personal health records trickle down to employers in the form of lower premiums.

It may be true that one has to spend money to make money. But it is not necessarily true that a business should spend money in order to save money, certainly not without solid evidence of a return on investment. In general, there may not be enough data to support the adoption of a company-wide personal health record system.

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How Can a Company Determine If a PHR Is the Right Choice?

Despite these caveats, in some circumstances, some companies may decide that the benefits of personal health records outweigh the costs. For example, companies that are keen on retaining high-value employees might consider PHRs. As a part of a benefits package, PHRs may signal to employees that their personal health and well-being is valued by the company. Businesses that opt to self-insure are most likely to benefit from PHRs.

Until there’s more data to support a positive return on investment, the benefits of personal health records remain intangible. That said, a workforce may end up engaging in more positive health habits simply by being aware that their employer takes an interest in their well-being.

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