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E-Patient Update:  The Virtues, And Failings, Of Doctor-Patient Email

Posted on January 10, 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.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my experiences with emailing my providers. I’m certainly grateful that this channel is now available, as I’ve used it to manage some important health problems. That being said, there’s also some new challenges to address when reaching out to your clinician.

Some of the important benefits I’ve gotten from emailing my doctors include:

  • Cutting out middlemen: If I want to communicate with my PCP outside of a medical visit, I have to call, wait on hold for the receptionist to answer, then wait for a nurse to find out what I want, who might get back to me if she can track down the doctor. Email communication bypasses the whole bureaucracy, which I love.
  • Quick solutions: If a doctor is at all wired, she may be able to shoot quick responses to basic questions (“Do I need to schedule a follow-up?”) far more quickly than if I’m at the end of a voice-message queue. Of course, the more email she has the longer it may take to respond, but responding to my email is still quicker than a phone conversation in most cases.
  • Messaging during off hours: If I want to communicate with a doctor, but the issue isn’t critical, I can write to them anytime I’d like – even while I’m eating a 3AM snack! I don’t have to wait until office hours, when I’m likely to be juggling other workaday issue and forget to reach out.

But there are also disadvantages to emailing my doctors, and they’re significant:

  • Problems with communication: A few times, I’ve been in situations where emailing doctors created confusion rather than clarifying things. For example, one specialist sent me an email suggesting an appointment slot, and though I never confirmed, he still considered the slot booked (and charged me for missing it)! That was a relatively petty problem, but if there was a similar level of misunderstanding about a clinical matter it could have been much worse.
  • Unclear expectations: If you call a medical practice’s service overnight for help with a serious problem, you can be pretty sure the on-call doc will call back. But when you email a doctor, it’s not clear what you can expect. There’s no formal rule – or even best practices guidelines, as far as I know – governing how quickly doctors should answer emails, what issues they’re willing to tackle via this medium or how they should handle email responses when they’re on vacation or ill (ask a colleague or nurse to monitor their inbox?)
  • Lack of context: In most cases, the email messages I’ve gotten from doctors resemble text messages rather than letters. Sometimes that’s enough, but in other cases I wish I could get more context on, say, why they’re recommending a med or suggesting I get screened at an emergency department.

Without a doubt, being able to email doctors is a good thing. However, I think it will work better for both sides if doctors have tools that help them manage multichannel conversations with patients.

Specifically, I believe doctors need access to a secure messaging portal, one which offers not only a unified inbox but also tools for prioritizing messages, perhaps using AI to identify urgent issues, and automates routine tasks. Ideally, it would identify patients by their name or email address, and pop up a patient status summary for those with urgent concerns — and yes, this would probably require EMR integration, but why not? (Feel free to write me at anne@ziegerhealthcare.com if something like this already exists!)

The last thing we need is for patient emails to become one more cause of physician burnout. So let’s give doctors the tools they need to manage the messaging process effectively and stay connected with patients who need them most. In fact, what if we made the messaging so effective that it saved them time over a voicemail message?

Enterprise EHR Vendors Consolidating Hold On Doctors

Posted on September 9, 2016 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.

When I stumbled across a recent study naming the EHRs most widely used by physicians, I don’t know what I expected, but I did not think big-iron enterprise vendors would top the list. I was wrong.

In fact, I should have guessed that things would play out this way for giants like Epic, though not because physicians adore them. Forces bigger than the Cerners and Epics of the world, largely the ongoing trend towards buyouts of medical groups by hospitals, have forced doctors’ hand. But more on this later.

Context on physician EHR adoption
First, some stats for context.  To compile its 2016 EHR Report, Medscape surveyed 15,285 physicians across 25 specialties. Researchers asked them to name their EHR and rate their systems on several criteria, including ease of use and value as a clinical tool.

When it came to usage, Epic came in at first place in both 2012 and 2016, but climbed six percentage points to 28% of users this year. This dovetails with other data points, such that Epic leads the hospital and health system market, according to HIT Consultant, which reported on the study.

Meanwhile, Cerner climbed from third place to second place, but it only gained one percentage point in the study, hitting 10% this year. It took the place of Allscripts, which ranked second in 2012 but has since dropped out of the small practice software market.

eClinicalWorks came in third with 7% share, followed by NextGen (5%) and MEDITECH (4%). eClinicalWorks ranked in fifth place in the 2012 study, but neither NextGen nor MEDITECH were in the top five most used vendors four years ago. This shift comes in part due to the disappearance of Centricity from the list, which came in fourth in the 2012 research.

Independents want different EHRs
I was interested to note that when the researchers surveyed independent practices with their own EHRs, usage trends took a much different turn. eClinicalWorks rated first in usage among this segment, at 12% share, followed by Practice Fusion and NextGen, sharing the second place spot with 8% each.

One particularly striking data point provided by the report was that roughly one-third of these practices reported using “other systems,” notably EMA/Modernizing Medicine (1.6%), Office Practicum (1.2%) and Aprima (0.8%).

I suppose you could read this a number of ways, but my take is that physicians aren’t thrilled by the market-leading systems and are casting about for alternatives. This squares with the results of a study released by Physicians Practice earlier this year, which reported that only a quarter of so of practices felt they were getting a return on investment from their system.

Time for a modular model
So what can we take away from these numbers?  To me, a few things seem apparent:

* While this wasn’t always the case historically, hospitals are pushing out enterprise EHRs to captive physicians, probably the only defensible thing they can do at this point given interoperability concerns. This is giving these vendors more power over doctors than they’ve had in the past.

* Physicians are not incredibly fond of even the EHRs they get to choose. I imagine they’re even less thrilled by EHRs pushed out to them by hospitals and health systems.

* Ergo, if a vendor could create an Epic- or Cerner-compatible module designed specifically – and usably — for outpatient use, they’d offer the best of two worlds. And that could steal the market out from under the eClinicalWorks and NextGens of the world.

It’s possible that one of the existing ambulatory EHR leaders could re-emerge at the top if it created such a module, I imagine. But it’s hard for even middle-aged dogs to learn new tricks. My guess is that this mantle will be taken up by a company we haven’t heard of yet.

In the mean time, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the physician-first EHR players stand a chance of keeping their market share.