Editor's Corner

This week, Aetna has launched a big-bucks consumer advertising campaign designed to promote use of Web-based personal health records. The health plan is pulling out all of the stops, including national television spots and full-page advertisements in costly venues like the Washington Post.

This is definitely an interesting thing to watch. Ten years ago, who would have thought that something as geeky as medical records would be the subject of warm-and-fuzzy primetime TV commercials? After all, the cryptic scrawled encounter notes by doctors, laboratory results and the like which make up paper records aren't exactly bedtime reading for your average patient.

The question, however, is what Aetna hopes to get out of its investment. Over the short term, I continue to doubt whether creating a personal health record can provide patients or doctors with much value, other than a few data points that all but the critically ill can provide verbally. What's more, storing the health record on the Web isn't necessarily the most portable, convenient way of doing things either--adding data storage to, say, a patient's medical alert bracelet could give even EMTs in the field access to the critical information more quickly.

On the other hand, getting consumers to record detailed personal data--using a consumer-based medium like the Web--may someday help provide much better portraits of, say, their management of chronic diseases. It's this kind of day-to-day behavioral information which could actually add a new dimension to care management. If ads like Aetna's can get consumers to start providing these richer snapshots of their health status, health plans, physicians, employers and patients will all benefit.

Realistically, though, the ads are just the beginning of a long-term education process which is in its infancy right now. All told, it seems that Aetna's taking the long view--making a sizable investment in consumer education the hopes that it will pay off two, five or ten years down the line. Sure, it will be intriguing to see whether Aetna can move the needle on their members' behavior today, but the truth is, building interest in PHRs is a game for long-term players. - Anne