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Physicians Are (Justfiably) Ambivalent About Virtual Care

Posted on July 30, 2018 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.

It’s easy for pundits like myself to support virtual care. From my standpoint, it’s obvious that virtual care is the easiest and most effective way to handle many health conditions, from handling one-off issues like sore throats and sinusitis to managing long-term chronic conditions.

Not only that, emerging devices will allow patients to test their own blood, urine, heart rhythm and more. When these devices are perfected and put into common use, virtual care will become even more useful and appropriate.

Despite all of these signs of progress, though, physicians aren’t all in with virtual care just yet. According to a study by consulting firm Deloitte, doctors think virtual care might help with patient engagement and support. However, doctors said they would need to overcome several obstacles to virtual care use before they get involved.

Generally speaking, survey respondents seem to “get it” about telemedicine. In fact, according to the survey nine in 10 physicians understand the benefits of virtual care, particularly when it came to connecting with patients. They reported that these benefits include improved patient access to care (66%), increased patient satisfaction (52%) and staying connected with patients and their caregivers (45%).

They also said virtual care could improve patient care coordination (42%), boost the cost-effectiveness of care (42%), offer increased flexibility to clinician schedules (41%), streamline workflow (32%) and help them stay connected with peers and other clinicians (28%). Only 11% said they didn’t see any benefits to virtual care.

Given these advantages, you might think that physicians were gung-ho about virtual care adoption – but you’d be wrong. Just over a third (38%) have rolled out email/patient portal consultations, and 17% are conducting physician-to-physician electronic consultations. Only 14% are conducting virtual/video visits.

On a side note, I was interested to learn adoption of such technologies is higher among primary care physicians than specialists. The survey found that 48% of primary care physicians have implemented portals, compared with 34% of specialists, and that 17% of PCPs were offering video visits versus 13% of specialists.

Meanwhile, I was interested to learn that 43% of respondents who had electronic consultation tools at their disposal connected with colleagues at least once a week. In fact, I’m surprised to learn that this is even happening– electronic consults with between doctors and their peers was not on my radar.

But I wasn’t taken aback to learn that physicians employed or affiliated with hospitals and health systems (62%) made regular use of at least one virtual care technology. After all, hospitals are generally ahead of other providers when it comes to telemedicine. (For example, check out Intermountain’s virtual hospital program.)

Bottom line, physicians still face big obstacles to rolling out virtual care, including a need for training (51%), a lack of access to this technology (35%) and worries about security and privacy of patient data (33%).

All told, when I read about their reasonable objections, low physician adoption of virtual care makes a whole lot more sense. Until these concerns are addressed little is likely to change.

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?