Barmer, Germany’s largest insurance company, is to begin a national evaluation of the effects personal health records (PHR) have on patient self-care and health service delivery. The trial is believed to be one of the biggest yet patient-controlled PHRs.

During the course of the study Barmer will offer the system to all of its seven million members across Germany; some will be offered the system for free, while others will have to subscribe to the service. The service will be rolled out late 2007, with details revealed shortly.

Birgit Fischer, deputy chairperson at Barmer, said: "The insured themselves can best evaluate the benefits of a personal health record and provide tips for its practical use."

He added: "Barmer wants to expand what has until now been mostly a technical research discussion to include questions of application from the perspective of insured and patients and to offer the Barmer insured an opportunity to participate."

InterComponentWare AG (ICW) has been selected by the research team, commissioned by Barmer, to provide the PHR that will be used in the three-year study.

ICW will supply its LifeSensor web-based PHR which will provide Barmer members with the ability to actively manage and control their health, including accessing their personal health information where and when they want.

A spokesperson for ICW told E-Health Europe: "The LifeSensor PHR is a personal health memory, so you can store all personal medical information in a secure way and make it available to your doctor and other people."

A key feature of the LifeSensor PHR is that individual has complete control over who may access it, setting specific permissions for their family doctor, clinics or other health service provider. Individual’s clinicians and health service providers cannot access the record or add to it until the user grants access.

ICW told EHE that LifeSensor is interoperable with physician practice management systems, the main GP record systems currently used by German doctors and compatible with the national German e-health programme.

The health insurance firm will not have any access to any of the health records of its members. Individuals will retain full control over who they want to access their data. In addition, Barmer members will be able to access services such as telephone advice services directly from within their PHR.

ICW’s managing director Peter Reuschel, added: "The web-based Barmer personal health record based on our LifeSensor technology is finally bringing the right of informational self-determination within the reach of insured and patients."

The research project will be designed and carried out by a team led by Dr. Hanna Kirchner, with an inter-disciplinary scientific advisory panel providing support and guidance. Among the issues to be examined will be data security and privacy.

"While we have carried out our own research this has been on a much smaller scale. This is the first big research project on PHR’s," said Dirk Shuhmann, ICW’s head of communications.

Schumann told EHE that there were already many licenses for LifeSensor "in the high five digits", including "5,000 PHRs in use in Munich". He added that ICW is also talking to other German health insurers and is active Austria, Switzerland, USA and Bulgaria.