Although electronic health records are widely used by providers, patients continue to face challenges in accessing their healthcare information, according to a new study funded by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT.

Under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, consumers have the right to inspect, review and receive a copy of their medical records. However, according to ONC, the medical record request process can be confusing for patients to navigate, and the process is not often available electronically.

“Patient portals may not include all the information patients need—and what’s there may be inaccurate or incomplete,” concludes the report. “And often, health data can’t be shared electronically or transferred to other healthcare providers.”

Also See: How to build portals that entice patients to use them

The agency’s research is based on an analysis of medical record release information and forms from 50 large health systems and hospitals in 32 states. In addition, ONC interviewed 17 consumers to understand their experiences and challenges accessing their healthcare data.

Lana Moriarty, director of ONC’s Office of Consumer eHealth in the Office of Programs and Engagement, contends that the process for patients to access their data is still too difficult, complex and cumbersome. Moriarty envisions a not-too-distant future in which consumers can download an app to their smartphone that enables them to access their electronic health information.

“Innovations, like application program interfaces (APIs) and mobile apps, hold promise that in the near future people will be able to seamlessly and securely access, use and share their health information,” writes Moriarty in a July 11 blog. “But in the meantime, there are short-term solutions to make the process less stressful for everyone today.”

Lana MoriartyThe ONC report outlines design opportunities to improve patients’ experiences and to create a user-friendly health records request process. The agency’s recommendations include:

  • Allowing patients to easily request and receive their records from their patient portal
  • Setting up an electronic records request system outside of the patient portal
  • Creating a user-friendly online request process that uses easy-to-understand language
  • Using e-verification to quickly confirm the record requester’s identity
  • Including a status bar or progress tracker so consumers can see where they are in the request process—for example, indicating when the request is received, when their records are being retrieved and when they’re ready for delivery
  • Ensuring that consumers know that they can request their record in different formats (such as PDF or CD) and delivered in the way they choose (such as by email or sent to a third party)
  • Providing user friendly, plain language instructions for patients and caregivers on how to request health records, what to expect, and who to contact with questions
  • Encouraging patients to use patient portals by promoting features like online appointment scheduling, secure messaging, and prescription refills

“There are very simple and actually low-cost solutions that could improve this process today, not only for patients and caregivers wanting to get their records but also for health systems trying to process requests,” adds Margeaux Akazawa, a public health analyst at ONC.