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Making Sense of the Debate Over Patient Access to Medical Information

“When it comes to health care, information is power.”

This comment from U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has sparked a heated debate among doctors and patient advocates about the merits and drawbacks of giving patients easy access to their lab results, doctors’ notes and other personal medical information. A deliberation in this month’s issue of SGIM Forum, the newsletter of the Society of General Internal Medicine (SGIM), is emblematic of how doctors’ and patients’ views on transparency vary.

Internist Douglas P. Olson, MD says it’s too early to offer patients electronic access to their lab results or medical records and that without systemic changes it could actually undermine the patient-doctor relationship lists among his concerns the potential to confuse or worry patients; a lack of evidence showing the positive effect on healthcare safety and quality; and the increased demands on doctors’ time to respond to patient questions.

These concerns are valid and shared by many other doctors. In a recent survey by OpenNotes―a project supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio that enables doctors to share their visit notes with patients online―doctors were asked about their expectations and attitudes toward sharing electronic medical notes. The survey was conducted before doctors engaged with OpenNotes. Responses revealed doctors were worried about the impact on workflow and weren’t convinced that it would make a difference to patients’ health.

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