Insurer offers mobile health records

Today, you can use your cell phone to make voice calls, send e-mail, browse the Web, make video recordings and even conduct wireless bank transactions.

But would you use your cell phone to carry your health records?

Blue Cross of Northeast Pennsylvania is betting that its customers will want to keep complex personal health records on their phones, especially when they have several doctors and medications to keep track of.

The health insurer began a slow rollout last month of a secure mobile personal health record application that is designed to give customers access to their medical information no matter where they go, said Drew Palin, chief development officer at the Blue Cross affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He said the application may be among the first of its kind.

The application is free to members and has so far rolled out to less than 10% of the 600,000 people enrolled at the insurer.

Palin said the mobile health record application is free because the company wants to promote its use. Nationwide adoption of electronic medical record technology by hospitals and doctors has been "slow," Palin said, adding, "We figured the other way to promote electronic records is through the patients."

So far, it seems that the service is being adopted by the typical group of technology early adopters who are open to new systems and applications and have come to terms with questions about the privacy of their medical records, he said. But Palin noted that from Day One, his managers and others were primarily concerned with keeping the records secure and private. "Our No. 1 through 10 priorities were security and privacy," he said.

Blue Cross of Northeast Pennsylvania sought out AllOne Health Group Inc., a health care technology integrator in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., that has partnered with Diversinet Corp., a Toronto-based company with 10 years of mobile security expertise, Palin said. Diversinet had already offered a similar application for mobile financial services.

The AllOne Mobile application runs on almost all varieties of smart phones and the majority of cell phones on the market. It stores the data in encrypted form behind a password, said Stuart Segal, vice president of integrated operations at AllOne.

Palin said he felt confident in the security protocols because of the encryption it offers. Encryption works on the actual phone, over the air, and on the Diversinet server used to gather the patient data that is input by the patient from a desktop computer, he said. During the desktop-input process, dual-factor authentication is used to authenticate the phone as the device the user wants to deploy; the insurer and other parties can never see the health data, Palin explained.

Palin said that parents and those caring for their elderly parents will appreciate the application because it means they can visit a doctor and quickly find names of medications that have caused allergic reactions, for example. While the application won't store actual X-rays and images yet, it can provide the results of lab tests. One user has already used a cell phone to send a medical record to a new doctor via wireless fax, he said. "Word of mouth is that people love it," he said.

Currently, users can input their own medical data, and starting next month, Blue Cross of Northeast Pennsylvania will begin populating the databases with information from its own files, Palin said. In a year or so, data from hospitals and doctors will be imported as well.

Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said the Blue Cross rollout might be one of the first of its kind, although there is a growing market of technology providers that build mobile middleware to port applications of all kinds to devices. Despite concerns about personal privacy, Mathias expects that mobile health records will catch on. "All information will eventually be online and mobile," he said.

A fingerprint scanner on a phone might be the ultimate way to ensure security, although such technology is rare, Mathias said. But because any security system has some degree of vulnerability, Mathias said mobile health record users will need to figure out what would happen if their health record got into the wrong hands.

Palin said the privacy worry will always be a concern for users and the insurer alike. "If somebody puts in the record that there's a strong family history of breast cancer, we won't know that, but we know there will always be fears around that," he said. "I'm sure the privacy fear is always going to be there."

Still, he said the benefits for users and the insurer outweight the risks. Palin expects the technology will lower costs for disputed claims and reduce the need to perform duplicate lab tests. Blue Cross of Northeast Pennsylvania eventually plans to sell the application, so if a user decides to switch health insurers, the customer could still use the application for an annual fee of around $20, Palin said.

"We think it has tremendous value," he said of the application. "You can see what the iPhone is doing for the mobile phone, so you can easily see that the mobile device will be your mobile computer."

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