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E-Visits May Have Unintended Consequences for Docs, New Research Finds

August 17, 2017
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Physicians who adopt e-visits often see increases in office visits and phone consultations, a reduction in new patients being seen by providers, and no noticeable improvements in patient health, according to new research from the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The researchers stated the frequently suggested benefits of e-visits and of electronic communication between providers and patients, such as enabling providers to give patients a low-cost alternative to visiting the doctor’s office. “Creating an online channel for care delivery offered the promise of reducing healthcare costs, while increasing the capacity of primary care physicians to see more patients by allowing them to handle routine questions or concerns through e-visits. At the same time, e-visits were seen as an innovation that could improve patient health by allowing patients to receive more attention and increased monitoring,” they said.

However, in reviewing five years of healthcare encounters (e-visits, phone, and in-office) for more than 140,000 patients, the researchers found:

  • Providers adopting e-visits experienced a six percent increase in office visits
  • The additional visits resulted in an additional 45 minutes per month of additional time doctors spent on those visits
  • To make up for that additional time spent on office visits, there was a 15 percent reduction in the number of new patients seen each month by those providers
  • No observable improvement in patient health between those utilizing e-visits and those who did not.

“Offering e-visits seems like a great way to save time and money by reducing the need for office visits because routine questions or updates could be done via email,” said researcher Hessam Bavafa, Ph.D., Wisconsin School of Business assistant professor of operations and information management. “The problem is that healthcare is much more complicated—patients may overreact to minor symptoms or not be clear enough in describing their situation and that leads to doctors feeling obligated to schedule an office visit.”

Bavafa added, “Despite more patient contact and interaction through e-visits, there were no obvious improvements in patient health tied to that channel. In fact, the additional office visits appear to crowd out some care to those not using e-visits.” Bavafa also noted that e-visits may result in doctors getting ambiguous or insufficient information that makes it difficult for them to offer a diagnosis, and that those additional communications with doctors create more potential opportunities for doctors to feel obligated to see the patient in the office.

The researchers suggested that providers may need to structure and target their e-visits systems differently in order to improve outcomes, particularly for those who are at or near capacity or struggling with a shortage of physicians. For example, before sending any message, patients would be prompted to answer more detailed questions that might provide doctors with better information.

“E-visits are just one feature of the online portals being offered by many providers that allow patients to access lab results, medical histories, appointment schedules, and prescriptions,” said Bavafa. “By taking a closer look at how both patients and providers are responding to this new model of service delivery, we can try to make this channel a more effective tool for improving the healthcare system.”

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