In their efforts to reduce sick time and rein in soaring health-insurance premiums, companies have invested in a range of employee health and wellness programs. Now, several large employers have decided to attack the issue from a different angle: they've teamed with an Oregon-based nonprofit to offer workers an electronic health-record-keeping service intended to provide more-efficient medical care and avoid duplicative treatments.
Donating $1.5 million apiece to the effort, Pitney Bowes, Wal-Mart, Intel, and others have contracted with the Omnimedix Institute to build a database, to be known as Dossia, that will contain records from doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and other sources. These comprehensive records would be the property of each employee, not of the employer, and would, proponents say, save time and money (including insurance premiums) while improving employees' medical outcomes. The National Association of Manufacturers is urging its members to sign on because, as Jeri Gillespie, NAM's vice president for human-resources policy, says, "businesses fund our health-care system, and any move that drives out waste is good both for employers and employees."
Not surprisingly, the concept has triggered concerns about privacy and accuracy. Omnimedix insists that the database will be secure, pointing out that it has hired experts not from the health-care field but from the banking industry. Privacy advocates counter that the banking industry has not been immune to data theft. "Medical-records systems, like banking systems, are prone to hacker attacks and improper disclosure," says Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "The systems are not adequately designed and the law does not provide adequate safeguards."
Deborah Peel, an Austin, Texas, psychiatrist who founded and chairs the activist group Patient Privacy Rights, agrees. "There is no law that guarantees that the promises big employers make are ones they have to keep," she says. Dossia is expected to be up and running sometime this summer.