Dell employees will soon have personal health records that use insurance claims to automatically fill in information about prescriptions, doctor visits and medical conditions.
The PC manufacturer said the service will help employees take charge of their own health, and make better decisions about how to access health care.
The joint effort between WebMD and Dell was announced April 10 at a health care forum in Nashville, Tenn., at which Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt keynoted. The personal health record system should go live later this month.
Dell is not the only big employer to push information technology as a means to reduce the cost of health care provided to employees. Washington-based The Leapfrog Group, made up of over 170 companies and organizations that purchase health benefits, has long advocated health IT.
In February, a group of high tech companies announced a program to pay bonuses to health care institutions using technology to improve patient care.
However, the Dell program is unusual because insurance claims information will be automatically entered in patients records.
WebMD has provided personal health records to Dell employees since 2004, but they had to be maintained manually. Employees will volunteer to participate in this new program and be able to delete this information or select options to hide it when sharing it with others.
Data-mining programs will identify patients with specific risk factors and invite them to participate in health coaching programs. Employees will also receive automated reminders for preventive care, but the system will not supply lists of these employees to Dell.
Right now, Dells personal health records will not be able to interface directly with any electronic health records used by physicians. These "clinical information systems" tend to contain more in-depth information about patients conditions than the administrative data used to submit insurance claims.
Phil Marshall, vice president of product strategy at WebMD, said that his company was looking for ways to include more information in personal health records, but that the ability to automatically fill in some data would fuel demand for more.
"By prepopulating with administrative data, we are allowing the consumer to drive the process," Marshall said.
Craig Froude, executive vice president of WebMD Health Services, said the system includes a robust authentication system to bar unauthorized access to patient information.
But Deborah Peel, chair of the advocacy group Patient Privacy Rights, said patients should demand more assurances: "People are crazy to do this, despite how convenient and supposedly private these records will be, without strong national laws to keep them from being compelled to hand them over to doctors, future employers and insurers."
Dell provides benefits to 25,000 employees. It has already launched a reward program to keep employees healthy. For example, employees get $50 for taking a health survey or signing up for a fitness program, and $100 for meeting certain health goals.
Tre McCalister, a program manager in Dells benefits group, said that about 45 percent of employees took part in health improvement programs and she hoped a similar portion would use the online personal health records.
Employers are not the only players reaching out to patients directly over the Internet. The consultancy FCG predicts that insurers will increasingly try to influence patients by, for example, publicly ranking health care providers.
And John Casillas, head of the Medical Banking Project, a think tank, said that banks are eager to provide health information to online banking customers, a business that could become a reality if health care providers turn to the banking industry to process their bills.
Feeding this trend is the fact that people are increasingly willing to turn to the Internet for health advice.
In fact, a survey released April 10 by Accenture found that although physicians are considered the most reliable, U.S. consumers trust online information as much as pharmacists for health information, said Philip George, a partner in Accentures Health & Life Sciences practice.
"The Internet has solidified its position as a trusted resource," he said.