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

Posted on May 19, 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.

Usually, particularly when I have complaints, I don’t name the providers or vendors who serve my healthcare needs, largely because I don’t want to let my personal gripes overshadow my analysis of a particular health IT issue.

That being said, I thought I’d veer from that rule today, as I wanted to share some details on how Kaiser Permanente, my new provider and health plan, supports consumers with health IT functions. Despite having started with Kaiser – in this case the DC metro division – less than a week ago, being an e-patient I’ve had my hands all over its Web – and mobile-based options for patients.

I’m not going to say the system is perfect by any means. There are some blind alleys on the web site, and some problems in integrating clinical information into consumer records, but so far their set-up largely seems thoughtful and well-managed.

Having allegedly spent $4 billion plus on its Epic rollout, it’s hard to imagine how Kaiser could have realized that big a return even several years later, but it seems that the healthcare giant is at least doing many of the right things.

Getting enrolled

My first contact with Kaiser, after signing up with Healthcare.gov, was a piece of snail-mail which provided us with our insurance cards and a summary of our particular coverage. The insurance cards included my health plan ID/medical record number.

To enroll on the core Kaiser site, kp.org, I had to supply the record number, my birth date and a few other basic pieces of information. I also downloaded the KP app, which offers a far-more-elegant interface to the same functions.

Medical appointments

Once logged in, it was easy to choose a primary care doctor and OB/GYN by searching the site and clicking a selection button. If you wished you could review physician profiles and educational history as well as testimonial quotes from patients about that doctor before you chose them.

Having chosen a doctor, booking an appointment with them online was easy.  As with Zocdoc.com, you entered a range of dates for a possible consult, then chose the slot that worked for you. And if you need to cancel one of those appointments, it’s easy to do so online.

Digital communication

I was glad to see that the Kaiser portal allows you to email your doctor directly, something which is less common than you might think. (My last primary care group wouldn’t even put their doctors on the phone.)

Not only that, everyone I’ve talked to at KP so far– three medical appointments, as I was playing catch-up — has stressed that the email function isn’t just for show. My new providers insisted that they do answer email messages, and that I shouldn’t hesitate to write if I have questions or concerns.

Another way KP leverages digital communications is the simple, but effective, device of texting me when my prescriptions are due for a refill. This may not sound like much, but convenience matters! (I can also check med reminders by logging in to a custom KP meds app.)

Data sharing

Given that everyone at Kaiser uses the same Epic EMR, clinicians are of course more aware of what their colleagues are doing than my past gaggle of disconnected specialists. They seem quite serious about reading this history before seeing me, something which past physicians haven’t always done, even if I was previously seen by someone else in their practice.

KP also uses Epic’s Care Everywhere function, which allows them to pull in a limited summary of care from other Epic-based providers. While Care Everywhere has limits, the providers are making use of what they can.

One small wrinkle was that prior to two of my visits, I filled out a questionnaire online and when asked to submit it to my electronic patient record, did so. Nonetheless, I was asked to fill out the same questionnaire again, on paper, when I saw a specialist.

Test results

KP seems to be set up appropriately to share standard test results. However, I’ve already had one test, a mammogram, and in doing so found out that their data sharing infrastructure isn’t quite complete.

After being scanned, I was told that I’d receive my results via snail-mail, in about two weeks. I’m glad that this was a routine screening, rather than a test to investigate something scary, as I would have been pretty upset with this news if I was worried.

My conclusions

I don’t want to romanticize Kaiser’s consumer HIT services. After all, looked at one way, KP is only doing what integrated health systems are supposed to do, and not without at least a few hitches.

Still, at least on first view, on the whole I’m pretty happy with how Kaiser’s interactive functions are deployed, as well the general attitude staff members seem to have about consumer use of HIT tools. Generally speaking, they seem to encourage it, and for someone like me that’s quite welcome.

As I see it, if providers outside of the Kaiser bubble were as married to a shared infrastructure as KP providers are, my care would be much improved. Let’s see if I still if I still feel that way after the new health plan smell has worn off!

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?