Why Accepting Patient Email is a Practical Requirement of the Affordable Care Act

Posted on July 31, 2013 I Written By

John Lynn is the Founder of the HealthcareScene.com blog network which currently consists of 10 blogs containing over 8000 articles with John having written over 4000 of the articles himself. These EMR and Healthcare IT related articles have been viewed over 16 million times. John also manages Healthcare IT Central and Healthcare IT Today, the leading career Health IT job board and blog. John is co-founder of InfluentialNetworks.com and Physia.com. John is highly involved in social media, and in addition to his blogs can also be found on Twitter: @techguy and @ehrandhit and LinkedIn.

The following is a guest post by Zachary Landman, M.D., Chief Medical Officer for DoctorBase.
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With the infusion of 30 million patients into the U.S. healthcare system in the coming years, the physician shortage is only going to worsen. In Massachusetts, which has had a similar healthcare legislation enacted since 2006, improvements in healthcare coverage and access are highly associated with physician shortages. Prior to the implementation of the health law in Massachusetts, internal medicine and family practice physicians were in deemed to be in “adequate” supply. Almost immediately following the legislation and in nearly every year since, however, the specialties have listed as “critical.”  While the percent of covered patients in the system has reached upwards of 95%, the result has been that physicians are increasingly difficult to visit. Appointment wait times have soared into weeks and months for some specialties and there has been frustration from both patients and providers regarding access.
MMA workforce 2006 and on
An even direr scenario is expected to play out on a national scale when 55 million people currently without insurance enter the healthcare market through subsidized exchanges. Economists predict that the current shortage of physicians will balloon to 63,000 by 2015 and escalate to 130,600 by 2025, due to both increasing demand and dwindling supply. To add salt the wound, a 2012 Physicians Foundation survey demonstrated that nearly half of the 830,000 doctors in the U.S. are over 50 meaning that as the number of patients swell, the supply of physicians will conversely retract.

Clearly, the way healthcare is provided will need to fundamentally change in order to accommodate the three main tenants of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act: Access, Quality, and Cost. One potential way is to simply force physicians and healthcare providers to see more patients in the current set of time or work longer or more frequently to maintain their level of reimbursement. Physician time, however, especially for chronically ill and complex patients has become a relatively “inelastic product.”

Physicians already experience significant rates of burnout, are feeling overworked, and have increased the frequency of patient visits to between and 6 and 9 minutes per encounter. Some studies suggest that trying to reduce this amount of time further may actually cause an increase in costs due to inadequate care, counseling, and increased frequency of complications. I would therefore argue that we have reached a point at which physicians cannot increase the volume and frequency of patient care without a fundamental alteration to the paradigm of healthcare.

Secure email may just be the answer. Securely messaging patients can provide a way to fundamentally alter the type and scope of care provided remotely leading to a maintenance or even reduction in the amount of patient care conducted in the office. The fundamental “if” in this scenario, however, is that it must save physician time. For example, physicians have known the value of hand hygiene in patient care for nearly two centuries, but only recently has widespread adoption been shown in an inpatient setting. What led to the main change? Time.  It takes considerable time to cleanse hands thoroughly between each visit. Only when the practice became a time-neutral or time saving event were physicians keen to alter practice behavior. With the inclusion of quick, visible, and easy to use dispensers outside each patient room, these two principles finally coincided.

It’s the same with email. Many physicians worry that by accepting patient messages, their already inelastic time will continually be stretched, forcing them to work longer and harder for a non-reimbursed activity.  After studying more than 11,000 physicians over three years, I have found that the effective use of secure messaging saves physicians on average 45 minutes per day.

Three hours and forty-five minutes per week. That’s a lot of time. And here’s where it comes from.

#1 – Triage. Physician messages should be directed to a practice manager or physician extender who triages the messages and forwards to the appropriate individual. In our case, we found that nearly two-thirds of “physician” messages could actually be handled by office staff. These messages were typically related to hours, availability, insurance coverage, consultant phone numbers, or other back office functions. Our surgeons found that by including a nurse practitioner or physician assistant could also further reduce the number of “MD-level” messages.

For example, minor concerns regarding wound or incision appearance, follow-up timing, suture removal, or questions from visiting nurses were all routinely and commonly handled by the midlevel provider. The exact nature of each question was handled in accordance with physician comfort and expectations. Ultimately, the number and quality of the messages that were directed to physicians were important, timely, and appropriate which led to fewer ED visits, sameday appointments, and phone calls.

#2 – Mobile. Physicians who are able to read, review, and send messages from their mobile device were able to find a considerable amount of “lost” time in their day. Physicians are constantly on-the-move: between patients, rounding, to the hospital and back, to lunch and back, on the elevator, etc. We found that these “micro-minutes” in each day added considerable effectiveness to mobile messaging. As discussed in #1, physician messages were already screened to be important and relevant and so a timely response is indicated. Physicians were able to answer these questions on-the-fly, leading to further confidence in the system on behalf of the patients and fewer voicemails or messages to return at the end of each day.

#3 – Voicemail. Voice messages are the bane of nearly every provider’s life. They are difficult to understand, slow, and take considerable time to review, record, and answer. Through points #1 and #2, the volume and frequency of voicemails decline considerably. The top competitor to patient portals and secure messaging is the phone. It’s universally understood, easy to use, and an immediate response is obtained. Only when patients have an easy to use portal that they can easily access anywhere (and from any device), send a secure message with confidence that it will be reviewed by the provider in a timely manner, and rewarded with a response will patients choose a new system. That’s exactly what our experience has been and there’s absolutely no reason that this cannot be replicated on a national scale.

Whether secure patient email (and ultimately our healthcare legislation) is a failure or a success relates to the patient and provider experiences and our ability to create a harmonious interplay of accessibility, ease of use, and time.

Zachary Landman, M.D. is the Chief Medical Officer for DoctorBase, a San Francisco mobile health technology company considered to be the leader in mobile cloud-based health messaging services that serves more than ten thousand providers and nearly five million patients. Landman is a former resident surgeon at Harvard Orthopaedics and graduate of University California San Francisco School of Medicine. During his career at the intersection of healthcare, technology, and industry, he has developed interactive online musculoskeletal anatomy modules for medical students, created industry sponsored resident journal clubs, and published numerous peer reviewed articles on imaging and outcomes in spine and orthopaedic surgery. Currently, he is leading the development of DoctorBase’s pioneering patient engagement and automated messaging suite, BlueData.