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Accessing medical information online via patient portals

Joann G. Elmore, MD, MPH, Research Director, OpenNotes and Professor of Medicine, University of Washington (UW) School of Medicine

Linda Johnson was 3,000 miles away from her Seattle home visiting her daughter in Baltimore when she had a medical emergency.

Fortunately, Linda, like many of our patients at Harborview Medical Center, has secure online access to her complete medical record, and in this critical moment, she was able to share that access with her daughter. That quick thinking and easy access to important information helped Linda and her daughter completely and correctly communicate her health history to doctors in Baltimore. When it was time for Linda to return home, direct communication with her primary care doctor, Sara Jackson, helped facilitate a seamless transition of care back to Seattle.

“The doctors in Baltimore could have a conversation on my behalf, with my daughter reading the information and also talking to my doctor in Seattle,” Linda said. “It helped my daughter feel more comfortable making important decisions.”

Linda has since provided access to her medical record to both of her children. She continues to manage her own health care, but expects that as she ages, they will become more involved in her care, and she wants them to be as informed as they can be.

Linda is not alone in her use of OpenNotes. More than seven million patients now have unprecedented access to their medical records and the ability to read their doctors’ notes via secure patient portals.  These trends are likely to grow as patients and their doctors catch on to the benefits of fully sharing visit information with patients. Doctors increasingly recognize that giving patients easy access to their medical record, including the notes they write after a visit, is an important way to improve engagement.  

As a physician and scientist, my research interests have always included the evaluation of new technologies. I want to know how technology can help patients and doctors improve health and health care. While OpenNotes is not a technology, it is a movement that encourages more doctors and health systems to offer full access to the electronic health record to patients. It allows patients to play a significant role in taking care of themselves.  

We are actively examining how this type of transparency will change health care and the health of our patients. Research has already shown that engaged patients have better outcomes, and that note sharing with patients may lead to better medication adherence, improved understanding of care, and an increased sense of control over their health. Seeing written information, including clinic notes, helps patients remember their care plan, reinforces patients’ positive behaviors, and strengthens the patient-doctor alliance. Most importantly, for patients like Linda, the portal offers peace of mind.   

Linda Johnson and her doctor, Sara Jackson, discuss OpenNotes.