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Researchers Examine Patient Portals as an Option for Mental Healthcare

December 11, 2015
by Heather Landi
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Patients are increasingly utilizing patient portals for eVisits with physicians and are showing an interest in eVisits for mental health care, even when that option is not explicitly provided, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center noted in a study.

In an article published in the American Journal of Medical Care, researchers from UPMC conducted a retrospective review of patient portal use between April 2009 and mid-June 2012. During that time, more than 2,000 patients completed a total of 3,601 eVisits through UPMC’s patient portal system, or UPMC AnywhereCare (previously HealthTrak). UPMC AnywhereCare enables patients in primary care practices the opportunity to complete tethered eVisits, which are described as “digital house calls.”

 To complete an eVisit, patients log onto a secure Internet portal and completed a standardized questionnaire about their symptoms. The information is reviewed by a physician, who makes a diagnosis, recommends necessary care, including possibly ordering a prescription, and communicates back to the patient via the portal. The system includes 22 different common conditions, such as bronchitis, flu, cold, back pain and sinus infection.

According to the study, eVisits for mental health conditions were not explicitly offered, however, patients could choose an “other” option for the eVisit. Of 685 patients choosing the “other” option for their eVisit (23.9 percent of patients making eVisits), 13 percent received mental health diagnoses, primarily for anxiety and depression disorders, the authors stated. These patients represented 4 percent of all patients making eVisits.

Researchers also found that these patients were younger and more likely to be women than patients not receiving mental health diagnoses.

The study authors stated, “The appropriateness of eVisits for certain kinds of medical care is still in question. For example, patients are advised not to use eVisits for potentially high-risk symptoms such as chest pain—although cases of such use are not rare. Whether it is appropriate for patients to seek “e-mental health” via a patient portal is also unclear. However, even in the absence of eVisit options designed to address depression or anxiety, patients may still seek eVisits to address common mental health needs. “

The researchers concluded, “Patients are interested in eVisits for mental health care. Protocols that allow prompt attention to common mental health concerns in eVisits may be needed.”


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