It's time for secure messaging between physicians and patients, as an element in electronic health record systems. | Mark Hagland | Healthcare Blogs Skip to content Skip to navigation

On My Holiday Wish-List: How About Secure Messaging?

January 10, 2012
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Is it too much to ask that one’s physician make the obtaining of routine lab results easier?


I don’t normally share a lot of personal stories on our website, but this is one I think many of our readers might be able to relate to, both as healthcare IT professionals and as healthcare consumers. About six weeks ago, as part of a routine physician visit, I requested from my doctor that I get a cholesterol screening, something I hadn’t had done for a few years, and which was medically highly appropriate. I got my doctor’s approval, of course, and went ahead and had blood drawn the next week.

The next step was to call and get my results. Should be simple, right? Well… my doctor’s office requests that patients call only during the one hour between 12 and 1 PM, and only on Mondays and Wednesdays, to find out any lab results. The problem for me is that I’m extremely busy and heavily scheduled all the time, as well as often traveling on business. So in the past six weeks, it has somehow never worked out right to be able to call my doctor’s office during those precise two hours a week when he was available to provide this information. What’s more, my physician requires that patients call a special number, not one of the two regular numbers (my doctor works out of two different offices) for his office practice. Indeed, the one or two times in those six weeks that I thought to call between noon and 1 PM on a Monday or Wednesday, I didn’t have the right phone number with me at the moment, and because his staff members all go to lunch between noon and 1 PM and turn on the office’s answering service, I wasn’t able to make the call.

Finally, in exasperation, I called the main number one morning this week, and spoke to a nurse with whom I’m familiar (she happened to pick up when I called, thank goodness); well, it turns out that my doctor was on vacation for the entire week, but when I told her how frustrating this routine had become, she told me she could call me back later in the day with the results, which she did, and I briefly interrupted an important conference call to take her call (she would not have left the results in a voice-mail, per HIPAA concerns, as she had indicated to me earlier that day).

So here’s a very basic question: if I can check my bank balance, move stocks around, pay credit card and other bills, buy plane tickets and reserve hotel rooms, and do just about anything else, online, virtually anytime, why should obtaining the results of a routine cholesterol screening from my doctor be such a torturous and obstacle-filled challenge?? Here’s the good news: my physician, who is a member of a salaried physician group attached to a major integrated health system in town, is currently going live with one of the industry-leading EHRs right now (he and his partners should be fully live within the month); and one aspect of that implementation will be the installation of an associated secure messaging/PHR function, obviously one that is HIPAA-compliant, and meets all the other privacy and security requirements involved.

That means this phone-game rigmarole around lab results will soon be eliminated, and I can’t wait. Here’s the thing: I can view this whole phenomenon through two different lenses: one as the editor of a trade publication for the very people who are making healthcare secure messaging possible; and the other as your average (if educated) healthcare consumer. As viewed through the first lens, of course I understand why my physician’s medical group has waited until now to go live with their EHR and with its associated components, including secure messaging and a PHR. As I well know, EHR implementation and planning are complex, difficult, and take a long time, and even the more advanced patient care organizations are only beginning to get the secure messaging and PHR or patient portal components right.

On the other hand, as a healthcare consumer living in the early 21st century, when I look around at how virtually every other service industry has configured its customer service by now, it is astonishing that much of what counts for patient service in healthcare is still so backward, relatively speaking. So while I understand, because of my work, why these advances are more difficult to achieve than they might appear, I also have to say that all the rationalization in the world won’t explain away the clear “burning platform for change” that this situation presents, in innumerable variations, every day, across the country.

Indeed, I believe that the time is soon coming when physician offices that don’t provide certain types of communication channels to their patients online will find themselves challenged in their markets by their competitors, who do. And rightly so. In the end, my tiny example is one of countless ones that speak to the need for rapid change in healthcare. The good news? Healthcare IT leaders can be heroes in their organizations—and to patients and families—when they help their organizations move forward in this area. For, even with the meaningful use process, healthcare reform, and other priorities at the top of today’s to-do lists, making routine communication of certain types more available to patients will soon, I believe, become a point of competitive distinction between providers in their individual markets. So: got secure messaging? If not, the time is now to do so.


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