By Michael Rogers Columnist
Special to MSNBC
updated 9/21/2005 3:46:40 PM ET 2005-09-21T19:46:40

The crucial need for computerization in the health care industry was dramatically underscored by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. More than a million Gulf Coast residents suddenly found themselves without any access to their medical records or prescriptions. And with Hurricane Rita bearing down, more people could soon find themselves in the same situation.

For the healthy, this may seem like the least of a homeless hurricane victim’s worries — but for the chronically ill, it can be fatal. In the wake of Katrina, the federal government responded by beginning to collect pharmacy, Medicaid, Veterans Administration and other medical information for a centralized database that doctors can use as they treat displaced patients. But enormous amounts of patient information will still be permanently lost.

How can you prepare for a similar crisis? Your doctor may already keep an electronic medical record for you — and if so, you are entitled to a copy. Or you can get your paper records and put one together yourself. In either case, the bigger question becomes: Where do you keep it? As Katrina made clear, the answer is not in your basement.

The solution is the Internet, in the form of a number of new sites that help organize and maintain personal health records. (In general, when doctors and hospitals have your records they’re called electronic medical records, or EMRs, but once you have them, they’re called personal health records, or PHRs.)

The American Medical Association’s coordinates with more than 100,000 doctors’ own Web sites; if your physician is one of them, that’s a logical choice. WebMD’s Health Manager offers storage along with many interactive features and tests. FollowMe is a five-year-old service that also allows groups — employers or hospitals — to offer PHRs as a service to customers or employees. All these sites, of course, emphasize high security standards: You control access to your records.

The ultimate solution may be that provided by a service called VeriMed. As do the other providers, VeriMed stores your PHR online — but then also provides a tiny chip that is implanted, usually under the skin of your upper arm, containing a unique 16 digit number.

Even if you are unconscious, a VeriMed scanner can read that number from your chip and locate your health records online. VeriMed offers the scanners to hospital emergency rooms for free.

A sizeable number of patients have chronic ailments that could easily land them unconscious in emergency rooms; only time will tell whether squeamishness over implanted chips (the process itself is quick and almost painless) will block this otherwise rather sensible solution.

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