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Electronic Communication May Be Boon to Doctors' Time

System doesn't enhance patient satisfaction, however, study finds

TUESDAY, March 10 (HealthDay News) -- A comprehensive electronic health records system could help ease the increasing workload faced by physicians, according to researchers who examined the impact of such a system in the Kaiser Permanente health plan.

Among its features, the system enables doctors and patients to communicate via secure e-mails instead of a traditional office visit. The system was first introduced in Kaiser Permanente's Hawaii region in 2004 and is now used throughout the health plan.

Researchers examined data from the Hawaii region and found that visits to physicians' offices decreased by 26 percent -- from about five visits a year per patient to about 3.7 visits annually, on average -- between 2004 and 2007. During that time, specialty care visits fell by 21 percent, from about 1.4 to 1.1 visits per patient each year.

However, scheduled telephone visits per patient increased almost ninefold. Secure messaging between patients and physicians increased from zero in 2004 to more than 51,000 messages (0.23 per patient) by 2007, the study found.

The system had no effect on overall quality or patient satisfaction, the researchers found. They did not examine the system's effect on efficiency or costs.

The study was published in the March/April issue of Health Affairs, which explores the benefits, challenges and potential risks of transforming the health-care system through information technology.

"Electronic health records have the potential to make care more efficient," Catherine Chen, manager for National Clinical Systems Planning and Consulting at Kaiser Permanente and an author of the study, said in a journal news release. "However, few providers will adopt such technology unless public and private policies reward providers for care via online visits. Consumer preference for more convenient methods of care, where appropriate, also needs to be taken into account."

More information

The U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality has tips for effectively talking with your doctor.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: Health Affairs, news release, March 10, 2009

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