Benefits of Secure Patient-Provider Communication

Providers have for years been challenged to increase productivity and throughput, even as their case-mix increases. Patients are frustrated by the results of these trends, which include diminished quality and effectiveness of their encounters with physicians. All too often, patients forget to share important information with their providers, or to ask important questions. And after leaving the office, they often realize they have forgotten what the doctor said.

Secure, web-based patient–provider communication tools appear to provide an ideal solution for these problems. These tools feature a dedicated system that supports only patient–provider and provider–provider electronic communication, and require unique log-in procedures and user identifiers to assure the privacy of such communications (and are hence not to be confused with traditional e-mail).

In addition to simple messaging, the communication tools can include various combinations of appointment scheduling, medication refill processing, viewable diagnosis and medication lists and a means by which patients can view lab data and other parts of their electronic health records (EHRs).

The Office of the National Coordinator requires that EHRs provide some of these services if they are to be certified as capable of supporting Meaningful Use by providers. In particular, EHRs must allow providers to provide patients with timely online access to their lab test results, problem, medication, and allergy lists, immunizations, and procedures. EHRs must also be able to electronically generate patient reminder lists for preventive or follow-up care.

As EHR vendors prepare their products to meet these requirements, Practice Fusion thought it would be worthwhile to review the benefits, risks and privacy concerns associated with secure patient-provider communication tools, and offer a few recommendations regarding their implementation (an excellent summary of this topic by Douglas Wakefield and colleagues appears here). We’ll cover the benefits in this post, and risks and privacy concerns on Friday.

The Benefits
As with traditional email, the fundamental benefit of secure messaging systems lies in the asynchronous nature of the medium. Message senders and receivers can communicate when their heads are clear and they can focus on the message. As such, secure patient-provider communication mitigates many of the problems associated with office-based communication. Studies have shown that these benefits improve patient satisfaction. In some surveys, patients even suggest they are willing to pay for this type of access to their doctors, at least in certain instances.

There are other benefits for patients. Unnecessary office visits can be avoided (saving them time and money) for example. Vexing phone calls for everything from renewing drug prescriptions to requesting referrals and scheduling appointments can be reduced. Should a patient forget what her doctor said or what that lab result was, she can refresh her memory online. And for some patients, the medium affords a comfortable means with which to raise sensitive issues regarding their health.

Importantly, a study released last fall by Kaiser Permanente revealed that elderly patients—which many believed would not use secure messaging—not only rapidly adopted the medium, but they were very satisfied with it.

For physicians, secure communication has been shown to help manage chronic conditions and free up face-time for patients who would benefit the most. Other studies have shown the systems can increase productivity by automating processes for referral, handling refill requests, and scheduling requests.

In sum, secure patient-provider communication tools have many important benefits for both patients and physicians. Still, as we’ll see in the next post, there are risks and vexing privacy issues that must be overcome before the tools can reach their considerable potential in health care.

Glenn Laffel, MD, PhD
Sr. VP Clinical Affairs
Practice Fusion EMR