October 11, 2015

The Foundations for Dossia’s Next Generation System: The State of Play with Personal Health Management Systems

I have now been the President and CEO of Dossia for almost four months. As I look at the personal health record landscape, I think that those who care about this space need to rethink some fundamental directional assumptions about health information technology.

We are “consumers,” not just “patients”

The term “patient,” as applied to health information, has two flaws: first, we need health-related information at all times, not just when we are in a doctor’s office. Health management is a 24×7 activity, not an activity confined to our clinical encounters, which are a tiny fraction of everyone’s life. Second, “patient” is a passive term. We should be controlling the management of our health, not being a passive recipient of clinical care.

We need all clinical information, not just medical information.

Our health care system encounters are with doctors, hospitals, outpatient centers, pharmacies, labs, imaging centers, dentists, alternative medicine providers, nutritionists, fitness trainers, health counselors, and retail outlets at which we receive immunizations and screenings. We need all information, not just what our preferred doctor, hospital, or insurance company wants us to see.

The “medical home” and “accountable care organization” concepts contained in the recent health reform legislation are somewhat flawed because they assume we will concentrate our health care in one system. That will never happen because we will want choices, even if we stay in the same geography. However, a sizable part of our population will change residences, which will force changes in health care providers, employer plan sponsors, and insurance plans. We need a comprehensive and portable health information system.

We need all health-related information, not just clinical information.

Much of what matters to our health relates to non-clinical activity: what we eat, how active we are, how much sleep we get, how much stress we feel, what vitamins, herbs, and over-the-counter drugs we take, what infections are exposed to us, our genetic make-up and expression, what environmental hazards present themselves to us, and what injuries and cumulative physical stresses we risk. We need all of that information presented accurately, automatically and comprehensively into a health record, not just what we can remember when asked by a doctor.

We need help navigating through health care payment sources.

The days when most Americans could anticipate having all their health care costs covered by a health plan are long gone. Today, we navigate payment through four sources: the health plan, a tax-deductible vehicle like a Flexible Spending Account, a Health Savings Account, or a Health Reimbursement Account, an employer or other incentive program, or self-payment. We need help navigating through these different payment streams.

We need help making health care decisions.

Health care decision making is increasingly complex. It is influenced by cost, quality of care, relative effectiveness of treatments, and what health plans and other payment sources will cover. Consumers increasingly need more decision support, because choices are imperfect.

We need to recognize that health-related decisions are often made by someone other than the patient.

The health care system and policies related to it, such as privacy policies, assume that most health-related decisions are made by the patient. However, we know that this is not the case for many parts of our population. Parents make health decisions for children, but a parent also drives health decisions for a spouse, for elderly parents, and even for elderly in-laws. People living together outside of traditional marriages are also making health-related decisions for domestic partners. Additionally, more elderly people are giving others health care proxies to make decisions for them under certain circumstances. Our health care system needs to recognize this reality and accommodate in access to health information.

We need to recognize that people need help with decisions relating to health management.

The personal, consumer-controlled health management system assumes that, for many medical decisions, the decisions are not simple and the choices are both imperfect and inherently based on incomplete information. Health management tools have to be available to make the health record more valuable in bringing to bear on health care decisions.

Privacy preferences are not simple and they will change, based on changing life circumstances.

Many privacy advocates, who are highly suspicious of the security and privacy of any health information system, and who may have experienced or been made aware of bad health outcomes because of misuse of health information, assume that everyone wants health information kept private. The real world is more complex.

Some people freely share their health status on public web sites, and on semi-public sites like Facebook, knowing that the information is no longer secret as a result. For some, they do not care who knows. For others battling a debilitating disease, they want to share information to get the best possible sources of help.

Others are willing to share information based on their need to find out better sources of help on allergies, back pain, or injury rehabilitation, but do not wants others to know that they have heart disease, because of job-related concerns. Anyone who expects to apply for a health insurance policy wants to keep health information secret to the degree that it affects their ability to get insurance or to get the lowest possible rates.

Privacy consent management has to allow patients or caregivers to express precisely patient preferences and to have those preferences honored.

Moreover, people who express a preference at one time may change that preference, based on changed life circumstances. Someone who is newly diagnosed with a condition may have more desire for privacy, or, in the alternative, may want information communicated more broadly.

Any privacy system has to make it easy for individuals to change preference profiles.


The state-of-the-art personal health management system needs to take all these factors into account. Too much of what passes for personal health record systems today are based on flawed assumptions about how health, health care, and health benefits actually work. Dossia strives to help people function in the world as it is, not as we believe it once was.