February 14, 2007

The new house call

Kaiser Permanente members head online for convenient care.

Doris Taylor retired 12 years ago, but she says she's never been busier. That's why Taylor, a Kaiser Permanente patient in Sacramento, Calif., turns to her computer to keep in close touch with her doctor, check her lab results, order prescriptions and make her appointments.

"Whenever I have a question, I can email my doctor and get my answer back very quickly," says Taylor, 69, who was treated for lung cancer in 2004 but is now back to an active life that includes volunteering at her church and her local hospital.

Taylor is one of close to 1 million Kaiser Permanente members around the country who are going online to keep in touch with their physicians and keep tabs on their health. KP members have already sent more than 1 million secure email messages to their providers and have viewed more than 3.4 million lab tests on line. "These online services are helping patients get better access to their caregivers," says Dr. Kate Christensen, medical director for KP's web site,  kp.org.

The online features are part of KP HealthConnect™, Kaiser Permanente's health information system that connects the health plan's 8.6 million members to their health care teams and their personal health information.

A national leader in online health care

KP is charging ahead with online health services as the nation's doctors drag their feet in this area. In fact, only one in four physicians nationwide reported using email to reach patients, according to a recent study by the Center for Studying Health System Change, a Washington, D.C.-based research group.

KP physicians in California, Colorado, Georgia, Oregon and Virginia agree that email and other online services are adding convenience and improving patient care, while not replacing the need for face-to-face visits. "My relationship with a patient is strengthened when we stay in touch electronically," says Dr. Lisa Liu, a general internist in Elk Grove, Calif., who counts Taylor among her patients. Liu adds that her patients are using the online services for non-emergency and follow-up questions.

Dr. Paul McClain, a geriatric specialist at KP's Fairfax Medical Center in Fair Oaks, Va., says email and online access provide he and his patients a greater degree of flexibility. "I can be on call at 2 am, see a lab test showing high blood sugar, and email my patient recommending a repeat blood sugar test," he says.

Communicating SafelyPatients such as Taylor are not sacrificing security of their personal health information when they email their doctors. In fact, patient information remains behind firewalls and never crosses the public internet. Taylor can expect a response to each email within 48 hours, but it often comes right away, she says. "I love this because I don't have to wait by my phone anymore."