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New Kaiser Permanente Survey Shows Email Between Patients and Physicians Improves Health and Impacts Efficiency of Care

Thirty-two percent of patients with chronic conditions report better health

December 21, 2015



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OAKLAND, Calif., — A third of patients with chronic conditions who exchanged secure emails with their doctors said that these communications improved their overall health, according to a Kaiser Permanente study published today in The American Journal of Managed Care.

“We found that a large proportion of patients used email as their first method of contacting health care providers across a variety of health-related concerns,” said Mary E. Reed, DrPH, staff scientist with the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif. and the study’s lead author. “As more patients gain access to online portal tools associated with electronic health records, emails between patients and providers may shift the way that health care is delivered and also impact efficiency, quality and health outcomes.”

The study is among the first to examine how the ability to send secure emails to doctors affects patient behavior, preferences and perceptions about their own health care.

Researchers surveyed 1,041 Kaiser Permanente patients in Northern California who had chronic conditions such as asthma, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, diabetes or hypertension. Survey participants included patients who had used Kaiser Permanente’s online patient portal, My Health Manager, to send secure email messages, as well as patients who had not sent any messages. Surveys were completed in 2011 by mail, online or by telephone interview to ensure that access to technology would not affect response rates.

My Health Manager is an important part of Kaiser Permanente’s efforts to engage patients in their health care by providing them timely, online access to their health records. Members can utilize the portal to schedule online appointments, refill prescriptions and send secure email messages to their health care providers. Patient-initiated emails are usually answered within 24 hours. In 2014, Kaiser Permanente members sent more than 20 million secure emails to providers through the portal.

Among the survey’s key findings:

  • Virtually all patients with chronic conditions said that exchanging email with their health care provider either improved (32 percent) or did not change their overall health (67 percent); less than 1 percent said that emailing made their health worse.
  • More than half of respondents (56 percent) had sent their provider an email within the previous year, and 46 percent used email as the first method of contact for one or more medical concerns.
  • Among patients who had emailed their health care provider, 42 percent reported that it reduced phone contacts and 36 percent said it reduced in-person visits.

Among email users, 85 percent of patients with higher cost sharing reported choosing email as their first method of contact, compared with 63 percent of patients with lower cost sharing. Patients were defined as having overall higher cost sharing if they reported a deductible or copays of $60 or more for office visits.

In addition to Reed, co-authors of the study were: Nancy Gordon, ScD, Kaiser Permanente Division of Research; Ilana Graetz, PhD, University of Tennessee Health Science Center; and Vicki Fung, PhD, Mongan Institute for Health Policy, Massachusetts General Hospital.

This study was supported by a grant from the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Community Benefit Program.

About the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research
The Kaiser Permanente Division of Research conducts, publishes and disseminates epidemiologic and health services research to improve the health and medical care of Kaiser Permanente members and society at large. It seeks to understand the determinants of illness and well-being, and to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of health care. Currently, DOR’s 550-plus staff is working on more than 400 epidemiological and health services research projects. For more information, visit www.dor.kaiser.org or follow us @KPDOR.

About Kaiser Permanente
Kaiser Permanente is committed to helping shape the future of health care. We are recognized as one of America’s leading health care providers and not-for-profit health plans. Founded in 1945, Kaiser Permanente has a mission to provide high-quality, affordable health care services and to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve. We currently serve more than 10 million members in eight states and the District of Columbia. Care for members and patients is focused on their total health and guided by their personal physicians, specialists and team of caregivers. Our expert and caring medical teams are empowered and supported by industry-leading technology advances and tools for health promotion, disease prevention, state-of-the-art care delivery and world-class chronic disease management. Kaiser Permanente is dedicated to care innovations, clinical research, health education and the support of community health. For more information, go to: kp.org/share.