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UW-Madison professor leads national effort to improve medical records

Patricia Flatley Brennan

Patricia Flatley Brennan (large image)

Over the past 20 years, patients have been called upon to play an increasingly active role in acquiring, coordinating and managing their own health care.

This month, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation kicked off “Project HealthDesign: Rethinking the Power and Potential of Personal Health Records.” The $4.1 million initiative provides nine multidisciplinary teams around the nation with 18-month, $300,000 grants to design and test new user-centered tools that will advance the field of personal health record (PHR) systems.

Patricia Flatley Brennan, a professor of industrial and systems engineering and nursing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the director of the project.

Brennan says that while for many, managing their own health information seems to be an option, it is fast becoming an essential skill to ensure that the benefits of molecular medicine and emerging practices be available to all people.

“Recently, the health informational technology community has devoted efforts to building robust tools that help patients track health care results, manage payments and maintain contact with their health-care providers,” she says.

“Project HealthDesign represents the next generation of health IT tools designed to make the health information available to patients more useful and easier to act on” Brennan says. “For example, a cell phone equipped with the patient's medication and allergy history could interact with an RFID (radio frequency identity)-enabled aspirin bottle, warning that the product may include substances that the patient is unable to tolerate.”

Brennan says building such tools requires two major changes to how health IT applications are built.

“Patients must be involved early in the design process so that we can understand the way health behavior fits into their daily lives and we need to build tools that are likely to be helpful rather than burdensome,” she says. “We also need to design really useful devices that work together with existing information systems.”

What about patients who don't have access to computer technology?

“Some raise the concern that the ‘digital divide’ will keep disadvantaged people from having access to these tools,” she adds. “As many aspects of contemporary lives, from banking to accessing public assistance benefits, require access to the Internet, innovative solutions to this problem are being created.”