Email exchange between patients and physicians improves health

por Lauren Dubinsky, Senior Reporter | December 22, 2015
Health IT Population Health Primary Care
A third of the patients with chronic conditions surveyed by researchers at Kaiser Permanente reported that exchanging secure emails with their physicians improved their overall health. The results were published today in the American Journal of Managed Care.

“Patients' ability to email physicians is really a patient centered tool, a way to engage patients in accessing health care providers,” Dr. Mary E. Reed, the study’s lead author and staff scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, told HCB News. “We are actively interested in how patients are using the tools and how they feel that this is affecting their health care experience and health.”

The researchers surveyed 1,041 patients at Kaiser Permanente who had chronic conditions including asthma, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, diabetes or hypertension. Some of the patients had used Kaiser Permanente’s online patient portal, My Health Manager, to send secure emails to the physicians and some of the patients did not send any messages.

Exchanging emails with their physicians improved the health of 32 percent of the patients and did not change the health of 67 percent of the patients. Less than one percent of the patients reported that emailing with their physicians made their health worse.

Of those patients who emailed their physician, 42 percent reported that it reduced phone contacts and 36 percent said it reduced in-person visits. In addition, 46 percent used email as the first method of contact for one or more medical concerns.

“While there are definitely some important process questions about how emails may change the way that other health care is delivered such as in-person visits or phone contacts, ultimately the patient-reported improvement in health itself is probably the most valuable outcome,” wrote Reed.

Patients who use Kaiser Permanente’s My Health Manager can schedule appointments, refill prescriptions and send secure email messages to their health care providers, which are usually answered within 24 hours. Patients sent over 20 million emails to providers through the portal in 2014.

When asked whether email exchanges will be the main way patients communicate with their physicians in the future, Reed wrote, “Yes, I do think that patient-physician email communication will grow in the future. But I don't know that there should be one main method of communication between patients and physicians. I prefer to think of it as expanding the menu of options that might fit the patient's health need and context.”

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