You tell me: What's a PHR?

OK, maybe some of you are sick of hearing me harp on this subject, but I'll ask again--what the heck is a personal health record? 

One view comes from America's Health Insurance Plans: "The industry model personal health record (PHR) is a private, secure web-based tool maintained by an insurer that contains claims and administrative information." Makes sense if you're a health plan, definitely.

Or what about AHIMA's take: "[A PHR is]an electronic, universally available, lifelong resource of health information maintained and owned by the individual."  Should calm the nerves of the privacy advocates, no?

The HIMSS definition takes us in a slightly different direction: "To enable the goals of reducing medical errors, improving quality of care, and improving the validity of information available to care providers, Personal Health Records (PHRs) function to consolidate an individual's medical information in one place." This one doesn't dwell on a patient's rights so much as the comprehensiveness of the data, which is of course a wrinkle worth considering.

Yes, I think it's pretty clear what the intent of various employer- and healthplan-driven PHRs is (cheaper, better care), but that's not enough. You can know that you want to ride from Phoenix to Denver without knowing what parts are needed to build a car.

I'm taking up this issue again, in part, because that the indefatigable folks at HL7 are voting on a functional PHR model over the next few weeks. While I'm delighted to see some consensus building on key PHR functions (such as wellness reminders or prompts to look at lab results), that still begs the question of what the ultimate goal of a PHR is. Quick: tell me in one sentence what your PHR effort is trying to accomplish. Not so easy, is it?

When it comes to PHR content, some key unanswered questions include:

* What is the core clinical data set a PHR must contain to deserve the name? Patient medical history, drug allergies, care plans, genetic data, what?
* Does the name "personal health record" imply that it's largely or entirely maintained by consumers, or are consumers merely its custodians?
* What's the benefit of maintaining a PHR?  (No, I don't agree that the answer to this is obvious.)
* What is the minimum amount of data a PHR must contain to be useful?

Yes, I realize that health plans, employers, software vendors, standards groups and even consumers will have to do a lot more talking before they arrive at a shared conclusion on these issues--and that technology never moves ahead without some fuzzy logic in between--but in my view things are still too fuzzy. As I see it, it's critical to get bit more clarity on core issues like, say, whether a PHR should be populated by claims data, consumer self-reporting, EMR data or a mix before more dollars are spent. In the mean time, let's not put the cart before the horse, shall we? - Anne