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Patients Value Online EHR Access, Trust Tech Over Paper

December 11, 2014
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Report provides a unique view on how consumers view health IT

A growing number of consumers are embracing electronic health records (EHRs), and the significant boost in online access to health information is increasing patient engagement, according to findings from a study released by the Washington, D.C.-based National Partnership for Women & Families.

The report, “Engaging Patients and Families: How Consumers Value and Use Health IT,” follows up on the organization’s 2011 national survey that assessed consumer views toward EHRs and health IT. “To date, the public discourse on health IT has largely focused on the views of doctors, hospitals and vendors,” National Partnership president Debra L. Ness said in a news release statement. “It is crucial to hear what patients have to say about how they experience EHRs and health IT as they receive care and manage their health—and that’s the focus of [this study].”

The second national survey aims to help policymakers, stakeholders and the public understand and assess consumers’ current expectations of EHRs and information exchange. By repeating questions in the 2011 baseline survey and report, this second survey also provides unique data on trends in consumer attitudes from 2011 to 2014, reflecting the nation’s progress from launch of the meaningful use program to substantial adoption and use of EHRs and initial implementation of Stage 2 and patients’ online access, the report’s authors said.

The survey was conducted by Harris Poll, and the pool was compromised of 2,045 adults who had an ongoing relationship with a main doctor, and knew what kind of record system—electronic or paper—the provider used.

In the last year, more than four in five patients with online access to their health records (86 percent) used their online records at least once—and more than half (55 percent) used them three or more times a year, the study found. What’s more, online access to EHRs has increased since 2011 from just over a quarter (26 percent) to half (50 percent) in 2014. On a media conference call that dug further into the study’s findings, Lana Moriarty, director, office of consumer eHealth, Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), said that the results tie into the agency’s recently released five-fold federal health IT plan. “This is powerful evidence that access leads to action. Online access can be a retention tool for providers and hospitals,” Moriarty said.

Further, the more frequently individuals access their health information online, the more they report that it motivates them to do something to improve their health. In fact, 71 percent of those using online access three or more times per year report this, compared with 39 percent of those who used online access less often, according to the findings.

“As the National Partnership’s new data show, more consumers are accessing, sharing and using their health information, underlining the importance of interoperability of health data and systems. We are focusing our efforts in these areas to empower individuals to address not only gaps in information exchange and interoperability, but also enable them to take steps to improve their health and better manage their health needs,” National Coordinator for Health IT Karen DeSalvo, M.D., added in a statement.

The study further found that 80 percent of adults in the U.S. who have doctors and know what kind of record systems their doctors use said that their doctors use EHR systems. That number is up from 64 percent in 2011. And 85 to 96 percent of all patients found EHRs useful in various aspects of care delivery, while only 57-68 percent saw paper records as useful.  “Patients find EHRs much more useful than paper records,” noted Mark Savage, director, health information technology policy and programs, National Partnership for Women & Families, who was also on the media call. “EHRs are much better at helping patients personally, especially in two main areas—sharing information with providers and avoiding repeatedly filling out the same forms.”

Consumers also want even more robust functionality and features of online access than are available today, including the ability to email providers (56 percent); review treatment plans (56 percent), doctors’ notes (58 percent) and test results (75 percent); schedule appointments (64 percent); and submit medication refill requests (59 percent), according to the study.

Regarding privacy and security of their health data, patients’ trust in the privacy and security of EHRs has increased since 2011, and patients with online access to their health information have a much higher level of trust in their doctor and medical staff (77 percent) than those with EHRs that don’t include online access (67 percent). According to Savage, in general, the more patients benefit the experience of EHRs, the more they trust doctors to protect their privacy. But more work needs to be done to educate on how their information is collected, used, and protected, he noted.

Another interesting finding in the survey was that populations prefer and use different health IT functionalities. For instance, Hispanic adults were significantly more likely than non-Hispanic Whites (78 vs. 55 percent) to say that having online access to their EHRs increases their desire to do something about their health; and African American adults were among the most likely to say that EHRs are helpful in finding and correcting medical errors and keeping up with medications. So specialized strategies may be necessary to improve health outcomes and reduce disparities in underserved populations, the report’s authors said.

“We need to turn our attention to how health IT can help and shape consumers,” Sandra Hernández, president and CEO of the Oakland-based California HealthCare Foundation said on the media call. “We think this study fills gaps in our understanding. If health IT is going to be transformative, it needs to be relative to and meet the needs of diverse populations.  You have to remember that what works for one person might not work for someone else. It depends where you are in life.”

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