The read-only drive, designed for use while a person is traveling or during a health emergency, is a sort of stopgap effort as the U.S. works to build a national electronic health records system that can provide easy access to patient health information anywhere.
The flash drive, which costs members $5, does not contain a patient's entire health record, but it does hold emergency contacts, past hospitalizations (with the diagnoses and procedures performed), physicians and contact information, medical issues, immunization records, allergies, current medications, lab results for the past year, and readings and images from recent EKGs and chest X-rays.
"Having a patient's medical history, EKG and complete list of medications helps doctors provide superior medical care," said Dr. Robert Pearl, CEO of The Permanente Medical Group. "This flash drive can be carried anywhere around the world, and it allows a person to receive more rapid medical treatment whether they are on vacation or traveling on business."
The flash drive contains information also found on Kaiser's My Health Manager Web site, which allows members to manage their health care online, including e-mailing physicians, ordering prescriptions, changing or canceling appointments, and viewing lab test results.
According to Kaiser, more than 3 million of its members now use My Health Manager, mainly for secure e-mailing of doctors and clinicians and lab results. The company said each month its members sends more than 600,000 secure e-mails to doctors and clinicians, and more than 1.6 million lab test results are viewed online.
Kaiser first piloted the USB drive project last summer. Nearly 600 flash drives were handed out to members at its Oakland, Calif., medical center. Kaiser is now expanding that service to all of its members in northern California.
The data on the drive is encrypted and password-protected, and the data on it cannot be modified by the patient or the doctor. Instead, the information must be updated through a free service.
The USB drives are available through Kaiser's medical secretaries departments. When a member requests a USB drive, the medical data is downloaded to the drive from Kaiser's Electronic Medical Record while the patient waits. The patient then enters a password as the final step, before the drive is removed from the computer. It's all done while the patient is visiting a facility.
Kaiser is not the first company to use portable flash memory to store medical records. In 2004, Med-InfoChip LLC unveiled a mini USB thumb drive that could carry medical information for up to two patients in case of emergencies.
The MedicAlert Foundation, a nonprofit health care informatics organization, also offers its E-HealthKEY USB drive, which brings up critical medical data when plugged into a computer. It also allows users to carry a complete personal health record with them.