E-Patient Update: The Kaiser Permanente Approach To Consumer Health IT, Second Stanza

Posted on July 7, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

As some of you may recall, I recently wrote a positive review of Kaiser Permanente’s use of consumer-facing health IT. (Kaiser Permanente is both my health insurer and provider.) Their offerings have a number of strengths including:

  • Interfaces: The kp.org site is decent, and the KP app highly usable
  • Access to care: Booking medical appointments is easy, as is cancelling them
  • Responsiveness: Physicians are quick to replay to email via the Kaiser portal
  • Connectedness: Thanks to being on a shared Epic platform, every provider knows my history (at least for the time I’ve spent within the KP system, which is pretty useful)

At the time, I also noted that I had a few minor concerns about the portal features and whatnot, but I was still a fan of KP’s setup.

By and large, my perceptions of Kaiser’s consumer health IT strengths haven’t changed. However, after a couple of months in the system, I’ve gotten a good look at its weaknesses as well. And I thought you might be interested in the problems Kaiser faces in connecting consumers, particularly given its use of best practices in many cases.

All told, these weaknesses suggest that over more than ten years after its Epic rollout, KP leaders still haven’t put their entire consumer health IT strategy in place. Here are a couple of my concerns.

Specialist appointments aren’t integrated

The biggest gripe I have with Kaiser’s interactive tools is that while I can schedule PCP appointments myself, I haven’t been able to set specialist appointments without speaking to a real live person. (My primary care doctor seems to be able to access specialist schedules and set appointments with them on my behalf.)

This may work for someone with no significant health problems, but creates a significant burden for me. After all, as someone with multiple chronic illnesses, I schedule a lot of specialist consults. You don’t realize how much time it takes to set each appointment with a clerical person until you’ve done it for five times in a week.  Try it sometime.

You might assume that this is a rationing measure, as organizations like KP are pretty strict about limiting access to specialist care. The truth is, that doesn’t seem to be the case. At least when it comes to my primary care physician (a big shout out to my PCP, Dr. Jason Singh) it doesn’t seem to be unduly hard to get access to specialists when needed.

No, I have concluded that the reason I can’t schedule specialist appointments online is that KP still hasn’t gotten their act together on this front. My guess is that the specialist systems live in some kind of silo, one that KP hasn’t managed to break down yet.

Mobile and web tools clash

As noted above, I’m largely satisfied with both KP’s consumer portal and its mobile app. True, the website sprawls a bit when it comes to presenting static content — such as physician bios — but the portal itself works fine. The mobile app, meanwhile, is great to use, as it presents my choices clearly and uses screen real estate effectively.

That being said, it annoys the heck out of me that there are minor but seemingly pointless, differences between how the portal and the mobile app function. It would be one thing the app was a shrunken down version of the website, offering a parallel but more limited version of available functions, but that isn’t how it works.

Instead, the services accessible through the portal and via the mobile app vary in small but irritating ways. For example, when emailing providers, you must choose a prewritten subject line from a drop-down menu. And I don’t know why, but the list of subjects available on the web portal version varies significantly from the list of subjects you can access via the mobile app.

There may be a rational reason for this. And mine may sound like a petty objection. But when you’re trying to address something as important as your healthcare, you want to know what’s going on with every detail.

I’d identify other ways in which the app and website portal vary, but I don’t have any other examples I can recall. And that’s the whole point. You don’t remember how the site and/or portal function until you stumble into another incompatibility. You roll your eyes and move on, but you see them again and waste one more spark of energy being annoyed.

It’s all about tradeoffs

So, you might ask if there’s any broad lesson to be taken from this. Honestly, probably not. I don’t like that KP’s tools pose these problems, but they don’t strike me as unusual.

And do my criticisms have any meaning for other healthcare organizations? Nothing more than a reminder that patients will take note of even small problems in your health IT execution, particularly when it comes to tools they rely upon to get things done.

In the end, of course, it’s all about trade-offs, as with any other industry. I don’t know whether KP chose to prioritize a potentially dangerous problem in provider-facing technologies over consumer quibbles, or just don’t know what’s going on. Perhaps they know and have added the fix to a long list of pending projects, or perhaps they don’t have their act together.

Still, lest it is lost in the discussion, remember I’m the customer, and I really don’t care about your IT problems. I just want to have tools that work every time and simplify my life.

So this is my official challenges to Kaiser leadership. For Pete’s sake, KP, would you please help me cut down on the specialist phone calls? Perhaps you could create a centralized specialist appointment call center, or use carrier pigeons, or let me suss out their schedules using my vast psychic powers — hey, they’re all options. Or maybe, just maybe, you can let me schedule the appointments online. Your call.