“56 million U.S. Consumers Access Medical Information from Electronic Health Records,” asserted Manhattan Research’s press release of October 12, 2011. This statistic, fresh out of the firm’s 2011 Cybercitizen Health survey, is among several stunning numbers that demonstrate a growing trend: U.S. health citizens’ embrace of their personal health information in digital formats, via electronic channels.

To kick the tires on the survey a bit, I spent time on the phone with the “3 M’s” of Manhattan Research — Meredith Ressi, President; Monique Levy, VP of Research; and, Maureen Malloy, Senior Healthcare Analyst who can recite the survey data backwards and forwards. Together, they guided me through the topline on digital health information use among U.S. adults in 2011.

The 56 million US adults who access data via electronic health records (EHRs) was a surprise to me, and to this trio, as well — so much so that they revisited the study methodology and samples to ensure that this was not a statistical anomaly. It’s not. But as with all numbers, it’s insightful to know what lies beneath the raw stat.

The big number to consider here is 24% of U.S. adults who are accessing their personal health information (PHI) from their physicians’ EHRs. In this case, the 56 million tend to be younger, better educated (more with college education), higher internet adoption, and more likely to own smartphones and tablet computers. They are also more likely to observe a physician doing digital activities during the consult – such as seeing the doctor entering information into the EHR.

What’s common among those consumers interacting with their EHR-borne health information is that they are more frequent online health information seekers than people who are non-users of their EHR data: three times more likely.

Monique Levy pointed out that EHR information users are “more acutely aware of the pain points they have in the health system: they are more likely to identify certain problems and barriers in managing care. They are a more self-aware group about what’s working, what’s not working, and what they need” out of the health system.

What’s beyond the 56 million (24%) U.S. adults who Manhattan Research calls “users” of EHR information? Another 41 million who are interested in doing so but haven’t yet.

This leaves millions more people in America who don’t appear interested in accessing their health information via a doctor’s EHR. Cybercitizen Health identified the least-engaged group within this cohort: 15% of people who have seen a doctor in the past twelve months whose doctors provided access to medical information on an EHR, but neither accessed their EHR data nor are interested in doing so.

Thus, the consumer side is only one-half of this equation: physicians, of course, play yang to the patient’s yin. In Taking the Pulse, Manhattan Research’s annual physician poll, the company found that doctors’ adoption of tablets (especially the iPad) continues to quickly grow. Their use will turbocharge physician adoption of mobile EHR capabilities, and physicians’ ability to share data, up-close-and-personal, and in seamless ways without disrupting workflow in the exam room which can happen when sitting behind a computer monitor.

For Cybercitizen Health, Manhattan Research surveyed 8,745 U.S. adults age 18 and over via online and phone in the third quarter of 2011.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: In The Two-Way Street of Patient Engagement in Health IT, I wrote in California HealthCare Foundation‘s iHealthBeat on September 27, 2001, “In the two-way street that is patient engagement, it is health care providers  who will play a key role in getting the mass-middle of people more involved in  their health data. That may be a lot to ask of health care providers given their  already-cramped workflow, but doctors and hospitals will be motivated by at  least two market drivers: payment and consumer pressure.”

Manhattan Research found that people who have begun to embrace their PHI via EHR tend to have physicians who bring them into the process in the exam room: physician engagement with meaningful use is drawing patients into conversations about their personal health information and, therefore, their health.

Further fanning the flame of physician involvement is Meredith Ressi’s observation that, “once you get an iPhone or Droid in physicians’ hands, it changes their behavior.” She noted that access to the web is the first changed behavior: doctors are doing medical information searches via smartphones wherever they are — and with iPhones, the use of simple-to-access apps further bolsters their mobile health behavior.