Kaiser is taking an interesting step to make your medical records available to you in a flash. Let me give you some background, then tell you about yet another of the ways that the world is changing around us.

Technology is going to play a major role in the health care debate that is about to take place in the US. For years, the government and industry have recognized the need for medical records to be available online to consumers and to all their various health care providers, but there are enormous obstacles to realizing that goal. It requires providers to trust each other as well as trusting and agreeing on the protocols for storing and exchanging your health data. Many issues of privacy and security have yet to be thrashed out.

Microsoft and Google have both made major investments in creating the infrastructure to store medical records online. The goal is a free, web-based place for you to create and store your personal records, get information, find doctors, make medical appointments, communicate online, manage medications, share information with providers and more. Both Microsoft and Google are working hard to be ready for what will undoubtedly be a huge demand for online healthcare technology; at the moment Microsoft’s Healthvault seems to be a few steps ahead of Google Health but both are interesting. (Here’s a comparison from last year.)

Last week the Mayo Clinic became the first major health-care provider to launch a widely available service on Healthvault for all of its patients.

“Examples of information that can be stored in the system are health records from doctors, schools or employers, or prescriptions from pharmacies. The system also allows patients to upload information from home-health devices such as blood glucose monitors and digital scales. Patients can authorize whether they want to share their health information with doctors or other caregivers, and those caregivers can provide health-care and general wellness recommendations based on the information patients provide.”

Kaiser Permanente is leading the industry in moving to electronic records and giving you online access to your health care providers and your data. Kaiser members already have the ability to schedule appointments, e-mail doctors, refill prescriptions and access test results online. Last year Kaiser began its own pilot program to test Microsoft Healthvault but apparently has not made any public statement since then about whether it intends to make it more widely available.

At the moment, then, there is no good way to access all of your medical records online, although that is likely to change in the next few years. That’s what makes Kaiser’s new Northern California program useful as a short-term tool.

kaiserusb Kaiser just announced that it is offering a USB flash drive for Northern California members to take on business trips and vacations, with an up-to-date summary of your health information in a reasonably generic format that can be read by any doctor with a computer. The data is encrypted, protected by a password that only you know, and the information on the drive cannot be changed. Kaiser will update the data on the drive for free on request. According to the San Francisco Chronicle: “The flash drive cannot hold a patient’s complete electronic medical record, but it contains such information as the member’s emergency contacts, physicians, medical issues, allergies, current medications, lab results for the past year, along with readings and images from recent EKGs and chest X-rays.”

As far as I can tell, the drives can be requested from any Kaiser medical secretary. The drive is filled up with your data while you watch; as the final step, you type in a password privately, then the device is removed from the computer and handed to you. Theoretically the drive can then be updated at any Kaiser facility.

The USB drives are going to be available throughout Kaiser’s Northern California region, although the Chronicle article notes that they won’t be ready in some areas until May 15. (No word on availability in Sonoma County.) An interesting thing to consider adding to your pocket or briefcase next time you travel!

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