More Insurers Covering E-Mail Consultations With Physicians, New York Times Reports
Many insurance companies in an attempt to improve efficiency and reduce costs are beginning to cover e-mail consultations between physicians and patients, just as they do for office visits, the New York Times reports. Physicians say that they can use e-mail to advise patients on less-severe concerns and avoid appointments and phone calls, and patients can obtain diagnostic test results and request prescription renewals through e-mail. Further, initial research has shown that e-mail improves physician productivity, decreases overhead costs and improves access to care.
Health information technology companies -- such as RelayHealth, Epic and IDX -- make secure software allowing patients' medical records and e-mail communication to be accessible only to their physicians. Participating physicians also follow certain guidelines, such as addressing only appropriate issues and responding only to patients they have treated in the office.
Various insurers -- including BlueCross BlueShield plans in California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Tennessee -- have begun paying physicians $24 to $30, including patient copayments, for e-mail consultations. In addition, Kaiser Permanente also will be starting an e-mail consultation program in Colorado and Hawaii.
Thomas Handler, research director at the technology consulting firm the Gartner Group, said, "All consumer surveys in the last several years show patients want to be able to communicate through e-mail or messaging. The problem was, reimbursements for the doctors weren't there." Physicians and health IT experts say that increased use of e-mail consultation could lead to more widespread adoption of electronic health information systems, the Times reports (Freudenheim, New York Times, 3/2).
In related news, many people say they are interested in e-mail consultations with their physicians, but most are not willing to pay for it, according to a Wall Street Journal Online/Harris Interactive survey. According to the survey, 80% of residents say they would like to send medical questions to their doctors via e-mail, and 69% say they would like to receive test results.
However, two in three respondents say they are not willing to pay for e-mail consultations, the survey says. In addition, many respondents believe electronic medical records could improve the "quality of health, reduce costs and significantly decrease the frequency of medical errors," according to the survey. Sixty-seven percent of respondents say they still have concerns that electronic medical records will make it "more difficult to secure patients' privacy" (Wall Street Journal, 3/2).