E-Patient Update: A Missed Opportunity For Primary Care Collaboration

Posted on March 3, 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.

Tell me if you’ve run into the following.

You call your primary care doctor to set an appointment, wading through the inevitable voice-response prompts and choosing the right number to reach a clerk. You wait on hold for a while – perhaps a LONG while – and finally get a clerk.

The clerk asks why you’re booking an appointment, and you name a problem. The clerk says she needs to consult a nurse about the problem before she books you, so you wait on hold while she calls the nurse. Of course, the nurse is too busy to answer her phone, so you leave her a voicemail message.

The next day she finally calls back and tells you a standard appointment will be fine. Yay.

This might sound like an incredibly twisty process, but this is exactly how it works at my PCP office. And the truth is that I’ve been run through a similar mill before by other primary care practices of this size.

In theory, many of these problems would go away if my PCP office simply took advantage of the scheduling tools its portal already offers. But for some reason its leaders don’t seem to value that function much; in fact, when it went offline for a while the practice didn’t seem to know.

But there are alternatives to this crazy workflow pattern that don’t require the re-invention of the lightbulb. In fact, all it would take is adding a few functions to the portal to make progress.

Gathering the threads

From what I can see, the key to streamlining this type of process is to gather these threads together. And it doesn’t take much imagination to picture how that would work.

What if my initial contact with the practice wasn’t via phone, but via more sophisticated interface than a calendaring app? This interface should ask patients what prompts their requested visit, and offer a pulldown menu providing a list of standard situations and conditions.

If a patient chooses a condition that might be hazardous, the system would automatically kick the request to a nurse, who can email or call the patient directly, possibly avoiding hit-or-miss phone tag. Or the practice could provide the nurse with a secure messaging client to use in connecting with clients on the go.  Using such an app, the nurse could even conference in the doctor as needed.

Meanwhile, if a patient wants to get a provider’s opinion on their condition – whether they should wait and see what happens, go to urgent care, make an appointment or hit the ED – the same interface could route the request to the provider on call. If the patient can be treated effectively with a basic appointment, the clinician routes the request to the front desk, with a request that the clerk schedule an appointment. The clerk reaches out to the patient, which means the patient (me!) doesn’t have to call in and wait for an age while the clerk handles other issues.

The same process would also work well for medication refill and referral requests, which my practice now handles in the same cumbersome, time-wasting manner. Not only that, automating such requests would leave an audit trail, which doesn’t exist at present.

Pursuing the obvious

What bugs me about all of this is that if I can imagine this, anyone in healthcare could — it’s a massive case of pursuing the obvious. Though I’m an HIT fan, and I follow the industry closely, I’m no programmer or engineer. I’m just somebody who wants to do my business effectively. Surely my PCP does too?

Of course, I know that just because an approach is possible, it doesn’t mean that it will be easy to implement. Not only that, only the largest and most prosperous practices have enough clout to demand that vendors develop such features. So it may not be as easy as it should be to put them in place.

Still, I see a crying need here, or perhaps one might call it an opportunity.  If we arm primary care doctors – who will play a steadily-growing role in next-gen systems – with better workflow options, every part of the system will benefit.