Why online access was associated with greater use of services wasn't clear, the researchers say. Perhaps patients sign up for online access in anticipation of the need for more services, or they may be more engaged in their health care overall, Palen said.
Dr. David Bates, senior vice president for quality and safety at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said the findings bring into question the expectation that use of clinical services will decrease as electronic health records become available, which earlier studies had suggested.
However, Bates, co-author of an accompanying journal editorial, noted that the personal health records studied lacked tools for managing chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, which can be expected to reduce services.
Online access to medical records isn't just about saving money, it's also about improving health, Bates added.
"Patients want more information online, and as they begin using patient portals linked to their doctors' electronic health records, most will find they really like them," he added.
This study shouldn't discourage that practice, he said. "Doctors should be encouraging patients to use these portals regardless of the impact on utilization, because they are likely to improve health," Bates said.
For more information on medical records, visit the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
SOURCES: Ted Palen, M.D., Ph.D., clinician researcher, Institute for Health Research, Kaiser Permanente, Denver; David Bates, M.D., senior vice president, quality and safety, chief quality officer, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston; Nov. 21, 2012, Journal of the American Medical Association
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