Studies have shown that e-consults increase access to specialist care and primary care physician (PCP) education, according to research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine (2020. Apr 14. doi: 10.7326/M19-3852) by Salman Ahmed, MD, and colleagues.
These resources are already being frequently used by physicians, but more often by general internists and hospitalists than by subspecialists, according to a recent survey by the American College of Physicians. That survey found that 42% of its respondents are using e-consults and that subspecialists’ use is less common primarily because of the lack of access to e-consult technology.
What hasn’t been widely researched are the effects of large-scale e-consult programs, said Dr. Ahmed, who is associate physician in the renal division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, in an interview.
For frontline providers such as PCPs, e-consults are a way to quickly seek out answers to clinical questions from specialists. In turn, the specialist can help a wider pool of participants, he noted.
The findings of Dr. Ahmed’s study, which included several academic centers and hospitals affiliated with Partners HealthCare System, a nonprofit network in eastern Massachusetts that includes Brigham and Women’s Hospital, used several metrics to analyze the appropriateness and utility of e-consults across a range of specialties. An e-consult was considered useful if it resulted in the avoidance of a visit to a specialist, which was defined as the absence of an in-person visit to the type of specialist consulted electronically for 120 days. An e-consult was considered appropriate if it met the following four criteria.
- It could not be answered by referring to society guidelines or widely available, evidence-based summary sources.
- It did not seek logistic information, such as where to have a specific laboratory test done.
- It did not include a question of high urgency.
- The medical complexity of the clinical situation was not substantial enough to warrant an in-person consultation.
The investigators examined e-consult inquiries to mostly physician health care providers in five specialties – hematology, infectious disease, dermatology, rheumatology, and psychiatry – over a year.
High rates of appropriateness
The search spanned 6,512 eligible e-consults from 1,096 referring providers to 121 specialist consultants. Narrowing their search to 741 records with complete data, the investigators found that 70.2% of these consults met the criteria for appropriateness. In an analysis of four reviewers blinded to each other’s results, raters agreed on the appropriateness of 94% of e-consults.
Across specialties, more than 81% of e-consults were associated with avoided in-person visits.
The reasons for most e-consults were to seek answers to questions about diagnosis, therapeutics, or patient inquiries, or to request further education by PCPs.
“Across all specialties, the most common reasons an e-consult was not considered appropriate were failing the point-of-care resource test and asking a question of inappropriately high complexity,” the authors summarized.
Physicians and PCPs from tertiary care practices made up the majority of referring providers, with turnaround time for consults averaging 24 hours across specialties.
Rates of appropriateness, content, patient demographics, and timeliness of e-consult responses varied among the four specialties. Those with high avoidance of visits rates tended to have high appropriateness rates, indicating that some specialties may be more conducive to e-consults than others, the authors noted. Psychiatry and hematology had the highest proportion of appropriate e-consults (77.9% and 73.3% respectively). Rheumatology had the lowest proportion of appropriate e-consults and one of the lowest rates of avoided in-person visits, and dermatology had the lowest rate of avoided in-person visits, at 61.9%.
The majority (93%) of e-consults sought in psychiatry were therapy related, whereas 88.4% of the e-consult questions in rheumatology related to diagnosis.
“Questions about diagnosis were less likely to be answerable via e-consult, which suggests that to provide diagnoses, consultants may wish to engage with the patient directly,” Dr. Ahmed said in an interview.
Infectious disease specialists seemed to be the fastest responders, with nearly 90% of their consultations having been answered within a day. Dermatology specialists had the distinction of having the youngest e-consult patients (mean age, 38.6 years).