Sometimes technology is as much a problem as it is a solution. In the health-care industry, electronic health records (EHRs) are causing plenty of headaches because of a lack of standards and disagreement on best practices. EHRs offer another opportunity to improve medicine, from neighborhood private practices to huge government organizations. But the promise comes with a curse familiar to other helpful technologies: People disagree about how exactly to implement electronic health records.

Interoperability and standards issues have stalled progress toward the goal of seamlessly integrated health IT. However, personal health records (PHRs) could fill some of the gap as the nation waits for Congress and the health-care industry to lead a unified effort.

PHRs are nothing more than digital versions of a file folder filled with a patient's health records, and are designed to let people be guardians of their own health information. Now, industry heavyweights such as Microsoft and Google are creating simplified services that might make it easier for citizens to collect and keep those records. Microsoft says its HealthVault PHR system already works with dozens of existing, stand-alone hospital EHRs, giving patients an online repository for electronic health information that is ready to use.

Developments such as HealthVault may spur quicker adoption of industrywide standards and best practices. In the meantime, they offer a Band-Aid for citizens frustrated with the health-care industry's inability to solve the problem on its own.


The Contenders

PHRs are, in effect, the antitheses of EHRs, which are systems that health-care providers build to electronically manage patient information. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), for example, has a huge and often-praised EHR system called VistA. The system manages the electronic health records of millions of veterans across hundreds of locations. Currently it's only compatible within the VA system, though work is being done to expand VistA's capabilities. It is the kind of health records management system the industry and patients desperately want to interoperate.

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Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.