Reports From the Field

An eConsults Program to Improve Patient Access to Specialty Care in an Academic Health System


 

References

From the Department of Medicine, University of California, Irvine, Orange, CA.

Abstract

Background: Orange County’s residents have difficulty accessing timely, quality, affordable specialty care services. As the county’s only academic health system, the University of California, Irvine (UCI) aimed to improve specialty care access for the communities it serves by implementing an electronic consultations (eConsults) program that allows primary care providers (PCPs) to efficiently receive specialist recommendations on referral problems that do not require an in-person evaluation.

Objective: To implement an eConsults program at the UCI that enhances access to and the delivery of coordinated specialty care for lower-complexity referral problems.

Methods: We developed custom solutions to integrate eConsults into UCI’s 2 electronic health record platforms. The impact of the eConsults program was assessed by continuously evaluating usage and outcomes. Measures used to track usage included the number of submitted eConsult requests per PCP, the number of completed responses per specialty, and the response time for eConsult requests. Outcome measures included the specialist recommendation (eg, in-office visit, consultation avoided) and physician feedback.

Results: Over 4.5 years, more than 1400 successful eConsults have been completed, and the program has expanded to 17 specialties. The average turnaround time for an eConsult response across all specialties was 1 business day. Moreover, more than 50% of the eConsults received specialty responses within the same day of the eConsult request. Most important, about 80% of eConsult requests were addressed without the need for an in-office visit with a specialist.

Conclusion: The enhanced access to and the delivery of coordinated specialty care provided by eConsults resulted in improved efficiency and specialty access, while likely reducing costs and improving patient satisfaction. The improved communication and collaboration among providers with eConsults has also led to overwhelmingly positive feedback from both PCPs and specialists.

Keywords: electronic consultation; access to care; primary care; specialty referral; telehealth.

Orange County’s growing, aging, and diverse population is driving an increased demand for health care.1 But with the county’s high cost of living and worsening shortage of physicians,1-3 many of its residents are struggling to access timely, quality, affordable care. Access to specialty care services is especially frustrating for many patients and their providers, both primary care providers (PCPs) and specialists, due to problems with the referral process. Many patients experience increased wait times for a visit with a specialist due to poor communication between providers, insufficient guidance on the information or diagnostic results needed by specialists, and lack of care coordination.4-6 One promising approach to overcome these challenges is the use of an electronic consultation, or eConsult, in place of a standard in-person referral. An eConsult is an asynchronous, non-face-to-face, provider-to-provider exchange using a secure electronic communication platform. For appropriate referral problems, the patient is able to receive timely access to specialist expertise through electronic referral by their PCP,7-9 and avoid the time and costs associated with a visit to the specialist,10,11 such as travel, missed work, co-pays, and child-care expenses. Clinical questions addressed using an eConsult system subsequently free up office visit appointment slots, improving access for patients requiring in-office evaluation.8,12

Orange County’s only academic health system, the University of California, Irvine (UCI), serves a population of 3.5 million, and its principal priority is providing the communities in the county (which is the sixth largest in United States) and the surrounding region with the highest quality health care possible. Thus, UCI aimed to improve its referral processes and provide timely access to specialty care for its patients by implementing an eConsults program that allows PCPs to efficiently receive specialist recommendations on referral problems that do not require the specialist to evaluate the patient in person. This report describes our experiences with developing and implementing a custom-built eConsults workflow in UCI’s prior electronic health record (EHR) platform, Allscripts, and subsequently transitioning our mature eConsults program to a new EHR system when UCI adopted Epic. UCI is likely the only academic medical center to have experience in successfully implementing eConsults into 2 different EHR systems.

Setting

UCI’s medical center is a 417-bed acute care hospital providing tertiary and quaternary care, ambulatory and specialty medical clinics, behavioral health care, and rehabilitation services. It is located in Orange, CA, and serves a diverse population of 3.5 million persons with broad health care needs. With more than 400 specialty and primary care physicians, UCI offers a full scope of acute and general care services. It is also the primary teaching location for UCI medical and nursing students, medical residents, and fellows, and is home to Orange County’s only adult Level I and pediatric Level II trauma centers and the regional burn center.

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