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Peeking over your physician's shoulder: Should we have open access to our medical information?

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We have all been there. You wait in the doctor's office, vulnerable, cold and naked, except for that disposable "gown", looking around the confined spaces. "What is that for?", you wonder as you eye a shiny stainless steel object, sitting atop the carefully organized table.

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Then your doctor comes in, asks "How are you today?" and you think, "Not well - otherwise, I wouldn't be here" and you explain what has been bothering you, whether it is a persistent sore throat, or...whatever. Your doctor begins scribbling notes in your file, and you wonder what he/she is writing. Who would dare ask? The unknown itself can cause anxiety that may well exacerbate whatever ails you.

After your doctor leaves, placing your file inside the plastic compartment secured to the door of the examination room, how many of us have been tempted to just take a peek at those seemingly elicit documents containing our deepest, darkest secrets? Imagine if you could not only take a furtive glance, but could take home a copy of the entire file, or even share observations with your healthcare provider. Would this improve health outcomes?

Recently, a study has begun to address this question, to give patients open access to their own medical files. After all, those notes are about our bodies, ourselves; shouldn't we be able to know what was written? Such information has been limited exclusively to physicians and to insurance companies evaluating health care. It is encouraging that a 12 month trial is now underway led by physicians at the Harvard Medical School to evaluate whether access to these files will benefit their patients.

We are at the precipice of a new era of open access information, with all of its benefits, and yes, associated risks. Private medical data from this trial will be available through a secure access portal, similar to those that are commonly used for personal banking. If we are comfortable making payments and transferring funds from one account to another online with a secure connection, why not for accessing our most private medical information?

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What are the benefits, and the risks, to this dawning, inevitable era of open access information? Some will come kicking and screaming, lawyers in tow, in opposition to the gilded era of protected data.

The Affordable Care Act is entering the implementation phase as a new law. This week, a US President offered the public something extraordinary: a personal tour describing how to access information from the comprehensive website (you can see the 3 min. 20 sec. demonstration here). The motto is: "Take health care into your own hands." No, it does not allow access to your medical records, but does offer a rich information source of your options for health care coverage.

{It is notable that, as of today, the Whitehouse has posted 1,248 videos on YouTube.}

We must acknowledge the expertise of physicians and their staff, including nurses and physician's assistants, among others. After all, most patients (including me) do not have the background or training for a full understanding of the contents of medical records. But we cannot deny that the information gathered, including observations and conclusions, can be the foundation of a dialogue with a singular purpose: improving the health of the patient.

Could this be a watershed moment in US healthcare? Perhaps. I believe that the coincidence of a new era of electronic medical records, along with this newstudy of the effect of patient access to physician's notes offers a rare opportunity to shift the decision-making from exclusivity in the doctor's office towards a partnership between physician and patient that can ultimately benefit both.

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Jeffrey H. Toney is Dean of the College of Natural, Applied and Health Sciences at Kean University and is a Trusted Author at OpEdNews. He received a B.S. in Chemistry at the University of Virginia and an M.S. and Ph.D. in Chemistry at Northwestern (more...)

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