In 1956, a 14 year old girl named Linda Collins cut her finger and sought treatment at a local hospital in Turlock, California. Before receiving a tetanus shot, Linda received a small dose to check for any underlying sensitivity to the tetanus antitoxin. She was highly allergic to the tetanus antitoxin and nearly died as a result of the exposure. Her father, Dr. Marion Collins, who was away at the time on vacation, vowed that his daughter would never be vulnerable again. Linda, he insisted, would wear identification alerting health professionals to her condition. And MedicAlert was born.
What Dr. Collins discovered however, was far more profound. He demonstrated that when individuals assume greater ownership of their health information their overall well-being improves.
For anyone managing a chronic or life threatening condition, the value of investing time and effort in managing and understanding their health information is well understood – poor or incomplete data can have a significant effect on their health. But the same is true for all of us – we can all benefit.
But we treat our health information with indifference. We assume that our health data is something our Doctor and her colleagues in the health care system will look after for us. We are so accustomed to our paternalistic model of health care that we sometimes don’t notice the problem at all. For instance, at a recent annual exam I was asked by the nurse when I had last had a tetanus shot. I couldn’t remember and rather than search through my file she simply administered another. I walked away a little perturbed that the office couldn’t manage to keep this information. But isn’t this responsibility mine too?
We keep better records on car maintenance than on their own health. It’s odd when you think about it. We have grown accustomed to outsourcing ownership of our most sensitive personal information.
Until recently this state of affairs was hardly surprising. Our health system generates an enormous amount of data whose primary audience is other health professionals. The information was difficult for individuals to get at and even if you could, difficult to interpret.
This state of affairs is beginning to change:
- There is a wealth of resources available on the web that help us better understand our health information. Some due diligence is required – the web is rife with poor information and inaccurate information but good resources do exist.
- Personal monitoring devices such as blood pressure and heart rate monitors are proliferating allowing us to generate our own health data.
- Canada is in the midst of a revolutionary change to the way health information flows. The implementation of electronic health records promises safer and more efficient care and an opportunity to build health information systems that allow individuals to play a far greater role in managing their own health information.
Thus we have better tools available to us every day to enable us to become more active participants in our own healthcare. Try this: On your next visit to your GP ask for your latest record and lab results. Buy a file folder. That’s all you need to start.
Robert Ridge is the President and CEO of the Canadian MedicAlert Foundation. MedicAlert manages the emergency medical profiles of over one million Canadians and close to five million people worldwide.