When Anne Perlman, 50, needs to see her doctor at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) in California, she schedules her appointment online. Prescriptions zip through the ether from her physician to her pharmacy. Test results go into her electronic medical records. (Once she even got a lab test back on a Sunday--"very cool," she says.) And Perlman can log on any time to take stock of her health: Did her cholesterol go down this year? When was her last tetanus shot? For Perlman, the business of medicine is... get this... "a pleasurable experience."
If you're one of the millions of Americans still in the medical dark ages, take heart: e-medicine may be coming your way soon. In July, the government launched a bold plan to get doctors and patients wired over the next 10 years. To encourage participation, officials are looking for ways to reduce costs and ensure software compatibility nationwide. The goal: a vast electronic network, where records can be securely viewed by any doctor or ER you visit. There's more at stake than convenience. Electronic medical records could save $140 billion annually and slash medical errors, which contribute to tens of thousands of deaths a year. "It's the right thing to do, it's the right time," says Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. "We have to transform the practice of medicine."
Paperless medicine means you'll be able to go from your GP to your cardiologist--or to a new doctor in another state--without having to cart around old records. Your physician, privy to your complete history, will no longer need to rely on you for medical details; you may just walk away with a more accurate diagnosis. Computers will send reminders about vaccines or alerts about dangerous drug interactions. Electronic prescriptions will reduce errors caused by bad handwriting. And for non-urgent matters, you and your doctor will be able to communicate through a secure messaging system, saving time and a lot of frustration.
Electronic medicine won't happen overnight, but you can start managing your health today. Begin by asking your doctors for a copy of your medical records. Web sites like WebMD offer programs where you can store and organize information (healthmanager.webmd.com). And electronic gizmos, such as Med-InfoChip, allow you to download your medical profile onto a computerized key chain (med-infochip.com). But keep in mind that federal law, which protects the privacy of electronic records in doctors' offices and hospitals, doesn't apply to private companies. Read online policies carefully: the company could share your personal health information with a third party. Even if a site looks secure, buyer beware: "A commercial dot-com can promise you privacy, but what if somebody buys it or it goes bankrupt?" says Dr. Paul Tang, who launched PAMF's electronic system. "Your privacy is more protected by your physician."
Until your doctor is wired, "there isn't anything wrong with a piece of paper," says Linda Kloss of the American Health Information Management Association. Download free medical-history forms at myphr.com or mercksource.com. Create your own emergency medical information card (blood type, allergies, chronic health conditions, medications) and stick it in your wallet. The more control you take, the healthier you'll be.