BACKGROUND: Patient access to on-line primary care electronic patient records is being developed nationally. Knowledge of what happens when patients access their electronic records is poor. AIM: To enable 100 patients to access their electronic records for the first time to elicit patients' views and to understand their requirements. DESIGN OF STUDY: In-depth interviews using semi-structured questionnaires as patients accessed their electronic records, plus a series of focus groups. SETTING: Secure facilities for patients to view their primary care records privately. METHOD: One hundred patients from a randomised group viewed their on-line electronic records for the first time. The questionnaire and focus groups addressed patients' views on the following topics: ease of use; confidentiality and security; consent to access; accuracy; printing records; expectations regarding content; exploitation of electronic records; receiving new information and bad news. RESULTS: Most patients found the computer technology used acceptable. The majority found viewing their record useful and understood most of the content, although medical terms and abbreviations required explanation. Patients were concerned about security and confidentiality, including potential exploitation of records. They wanted the facility to give informed consent regarding access and use of data. Many found errors, although most were not medically significant. Many expected more detail and more information. Patients wanted to add personal information. CONCLUSION: Patients have strong views on what they find acceptable regarding access to electronic records. Working in partnership with patients to develop systems is essential to their success. Further work is required to address legal and ethical issues of electronic records and to evaluate their impact on patients, health professionals and service provision.