Medical terms can be complex. Not surprising then that they are commonly abbreviated ... there's the EKG, the EEG, the MRI and so on. And now we have the PHR, which is totally painless, stressless and, in some cases, free.

The PHR is your personal health record. You will undoubtedly be hearing more about maintaining your own and your family's PHR online, because the federal government is suggesting that by 2010 every American have a computerized record of their personal health history.

Indeed, since Hurricane Katrina left many thousands of evacuees adrift far from home and without benefit of medical records, there has been an added impetus for people to find a way of securing personal records of all kinds, medical included.

Several companies are lining up to offer electronic records. Among them is Medem Inc., a San Francisco company founded by a group of medical societies. Though most companies charge a fee, Medem will maintain your comprehensive medical record free of charge on its secure Web site, www.ihealth

The company offers several other Internet services to physicians and hospitals for a fee, but consumers can sign up individually to maintain their free electronic health records and receive various ancillary benefits, according to Medem's chief executive, Dr. Edward Fotsch.

"We send out reminders for people to update their record. People get a quarterly notice to keep their record accurate. A lot of people don't want to think about their health care, so people need to be reminded," Fotsch said.

Additionally, Fotsch said, Medem provides educational programs, which advise consumers about preventive measures and medications that pertain to their particular medical situation. Consumers who are taking a medication subject to an FDA warning or recall are automatically notified immediately.

Consumers can grant access to their records to whomever they choose and take away such access as well. Most people customarily opt to have their records made automatically accessible to their physicians and family members. According to Fotsch, some 35 percent of those who register do so for an elderly parent or a child. Consumers can also see a log of just who has viewed their personal records.

Security is uppermost in many people's minds, and all iHealthRecords are encrypted and completely confidential, according to the Web site, and "as secure as can be," according to Fotsch, who realizes that people will still be concerned about their medical privacy "no matter how secure a system you put in place." Records are stored in a server environment that has firewalls in place to restrict unidentified parties from accessing the main and backup servers.

Each iHealthRecord participant carries a card, which provides the Medem URL and the user's identification along with instructions for contacting Medem in the case of an emergency.

Access to the record provides the answers to the many questions that arise, "if you show up in the emergency room and no one knows anything about you," said Fotsch, who spent 10 years in emergency medicine.

Elsewhere in the United States, according to Medem, many iHealthRecord consumers register to join its online service through their physician's offices rather than individually. A spot-check throughout the Long Island region, however, failed to locate physician participants.

But anyone can ask his or her physician or hospital to provide the medical records, which can then be added to the individual's computerized health history. If a physician does choose to join Medem, he or she can automatically update a patient's records and call up those records whenever the patient comes in for an office visit.

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