Five major U.S. corporations have joined forces to create a "medical Internet" on which some 2.5 million people can compile their personal health records in one location, providing convenient access to everything from prescriptions and cholesterol readings to family medical histories.
The system, unveiled Wednesday, could reduce the chances of medical mistakes, improve treatment of chronic illnesses and eventually save billions of dollars by avoiding duplicative services, its designers say. Currently such information -- often cumbersome paper records -- is scattered among the files of a patient's doctors, pharmacists and other care providers, making it difficult to coordinate treatment.
If the experiment works, experts say, most of the country could follow suit in five to 10 years, though privacy advocates say stronger safeguards are needed.
The new venture reflects growing concern among businesses that healthcare costs of American workers -- largely borne by their employers -- may be unsustainable in the global economy.
Employers continue to pay most of America's $2 trillion annual bill for healthcare. Many corporate leaders have concluded that inefficiencies in the current system add to costs.
Indeed, the National Assn. of Manufacturers said Wednesday it would spearhead an effort to persuade other big companies to quickly adopt electronic records. And next week, major insurers plan to unveil a model medical record for computer systems that could be adopted nationwide.
The five companies in the consortium contributed $1.5 million each to create the system, called Dossia. The firms -- Applied Materials, BP America, Intel, Pitney Bowes and Wal-Mart -- contracted with an independent third party to design and operate it.
"It's not something that will be held by employers or by insurance companies," said Intel Chairman Craig R. Barrett.
The companies plan to start signing up employees by the middle of next year. Among them, they cover 2.5 million workers, family members and retirees. The system's operator -- the nonprofit Omnimedix Institute of Portland, Ore. -- hopes to open it to other companies soon after, for a modest per-employee fee.
The companies said the system could increase efficiency and -- by giving patients detailed information -- promote healthier behavior as well as more effective treatment, which could save money.
"The benefit of this system has to be in the hundreds of billions," said Michael J. Critelli, chairman and chief executive of Pitney Bowes.
Participation in Dossia will be voluntary. Patients will control who sees their information and what is released to doctors, the companies said.
Backers of electronic records say existing federal laws and regulations are enough to protect individuals.
"What Congress could do is use a light hand in further regulation of privacy," said J.D. Kleinke, executive director of Omnimedix. "There is tremendous risk if it is done in a draconian way."
But the wealth of sensitive personal information in Internet medical files would make them an attractive target for data thieves, and some privacy advocates say strict new federal protections are needed before the nation embraces electronic records. Legislation to set ground rules for such a system bogged down in Congress this year, and Democrats have promised to resurrect it with stronger safeguards for privacy. Some advocates are advising employees not to sign up for such programs until the government acts.
"We've got to have privacy first in order to get the benefits of health information technology," said Dr. Deborah C. Peel, a psychiatrist who heads the Patient Privacy Rights Foundation in Austin, Texas.
Among the protections Peel thinks should be spelled out is a right to sue over unauthorized disclosure.
Existing federal laws do not give individuals the right to control who sees their medical information but instead defer to state laws, said Alison Knight, a lawyer with the advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"The new Congress has a chance of putting in some better privacy safeguards," she said.
The Dossia system was built by technicians recruited from banking and financial companies, which have already set a high standard for security and accuracy, Kleinke said.
The electronic record would become an employee's lifelong property, traveling with the worker to a new job and, after retirement, the Medicare system.
Individuals could enter information into their personal record, but the system also could be configured to collect data automatically from pharmacies, doctor's offices, hospitals, insurers and other electronic sources in the healthcare system. Documents could also be scanned in, and Dossia could accommodate X-rays and other visual records.
Before going to a medical appointment, a patient would log on to Dossia and view information on current health issues, medications, allergies and test results.
The individual would select what information to include in a report for the doctor. More information on the system is available at dossia.org.