Cruising above the earth at 37,000 feet on the way back from vacation, my mind starts wandering. The impending reality of returning to work is setting in, and I can’t help but reflect on how the experience of a weary traveler trying to get home is like that of a weary patient trying to navigate modern health care. As it turns out, there are more than a few similarities, and that is not necessarily a good thing.
The modern airline industry is often cited by experts as a model for safety, efficiency, and innovation, though just a few decades ago this wasn’t the case. Several factors (for example, catastrophic crashes; the events of September 11th, 2001; the economic downturn) forced airlines to make radical improvements in how they operated – many of which I am quite thankful for as I gaze down upon America’s heartland from my window seat. Still, there are many who would say that in spite of (and sometimes because of) these improvements, air travel is the worst it’s ever been; airport lines are longer than ever, costs have steadily increased, and customer service has become little more than a quaint idea from a bygone era.
Most people deride the frustrations of air travel yet accept them as normal. The same expectations have unfortunately been set in health care. Patients wait, though waiting only contributes to anxiety and leads them to question the quality of their care. They also expect their journey to have many layover stops, though these involve even more waiting and often unnecessary redundancy. We need to streamline the care delivery process, and this is where technology can help.
First of all, we need to address the waiting. In health care, we tend to call this “access,” an ever-present problem for patients and providers. Thankfully, some recent innovations have helped significantly. The first of these innovations is online scheduling, which allows patients to find openings and schedule visits without the need to pick up the phone. Much like the ability to book a dinner reservation online, this is becoming an expectation for health care consumers. Participating practices and health systems can also use it as a marketing advantage; it is a fantastic way to recruit new patients as they search for a new provider online (that is, seeing that a physician has immediate openings may make the decision easier).
There are several companies providing third-party online scheduling services, and many of these can interface directly with electronic health records. EHR vendors themselves also provide this functionality to existing patients through an online web portal or mobile app. Either way, if you haven’t considered it yet, you should. It’s a great way to fill last-minute schedule openings and increase your patient base, all while improving access and patient satisfaction.
Another way to improve access is through telemedicine. We’ve written about this in prior columns, but it has certainly become more prevalent and available since then. Now more insurers are reimbursing for telemedicine services, and consumers are starting to embrace it as well. Consider some advantages: it’s more convenient for patients and often less expensive for those without insurance – cash prices tend to be in the $50-$75 range. It can also be more convenient for providers, as the typical telemedicine visit lasts only about 10 minutes and can be easily fit in last-minute. Better still, telemedicine can be a way for providers to now be paid for services they might have previously provided for free by telephone. It is critical to choose patients and conditions appropriate for these “virtual visits.” Medication checks, lab follow-ups, or rash evaluations are just a few examples, but with a little bit of thought it is easy to find dozens of other opportunities to use telemedicine to improve access.
In addition to access, we need to look for ways to improve efficiency and decrease redundancy when sending patients for testing and consultations. Recently, I had the experience of visiting a specialist for a minor medical issue. In spite of the fact that the specialist was a member of the same health system as my PCP, I still spent the first 15 minutes of my visit filling out paperwork that requested information easily available from my health record. There must be a better way.
Patients are beginning to question why, in the world of ubiquitous social media and connectivity, our computerized medical records can’t communicate. This is especially true when they are seeing physicians who are part of the same health system (as in my case). Thankfully, vendors have gotten the message and have begun allowing providers to collaborate, not only with physicians using the same software, but also with those using other EHRs through Health Information Exchanges (HIEs). Unfortunately, this alone won’t be enough. We must continue to promote the notion of patient-owned medical records, as that will be the only way to ensure true patient-centered care. In a future column, we’ll explore this concept in greater detail, but for now we’ll confirm our belief that universal interoperability is reasonable and possible.
As we are getting ready to land, I reflect on the wonderful vacation I just had and the tasks ahead at home, most of which I enjoy. Patients aren’t always as lucky; they are accessing medical care because they have to, not because they want to. Their “destination” is all too often an unfortunate diagnosis, unexpected surgical procedure, or lifetime of chronic discomfort. It is therefore incumbent on us, their care providers, to use the tools at our disposal to offer them the most efficient, most comfortable, and most connected journey possible.
Dr. Notte is a family physician and clinical informaticist for Abington (Pa.) Memorial Hospital. He is also a partner in EHR Practice Consultants, a firm that aids physicians in adopting electronic health records. Dr. Skolnik is professor of family and community medicine at Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, and associate director of the family medicine residency program at Abington Jefferson Health.