Patient E-Health Use Remains Low

Online consultations between doctors and patients will become essential as more people access doctors under health reform, says Forrester Research.

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While there is widespread use of the Internet among Americans -- 74% of Americans 18 and older go online, according to the Pew Research Center -- a recent survey from Forrester Research shows that communication between physicians and patients via the Internet is still struggling to gain traction. Forrester's numbers reveal that of those patients whose doctors offer e-mails, less than a quarter have used it, while only 16% have taken advantage of their doctors' online forms for medical visits.

Published last month, the survey interviewed 5,264 people between August and September 2009, and found that, among e-Visit users, 46% have a college degree or higher and 54% don't. Among non-users, 25% have a college degree and 75% don't. eVisit users also have higher household incomes, averaging $88,000, while the average income for those not using the service is $70,000.

Forrester describes an eVisit as a patient having an electronic conversation with a doctor, either through e-mail or a structured online form that asks for specific data. It usually replaces or supplements an in-person visit. The survey showed that most eVisit users carry either preferred provider organization (PPO) or health maintenance organization (HMO) plans and are 30 to 43 years old.

Among those using eVisit services, 9 out of 10 said they go online every month and, when they do, they are more prone to conduct a variety of health research. Fifty-six percent said they have searched for a medical condition and 41% said they have researched a drug online -- a rate about 50% greater than the general U.S. population.

Those who embrace the eVisit experience also show greater signs of healthcare consumerism, using health information to inform their decision-making and seeking more control over their health finances. Additionally, eVisit users are more concerned about the privacy and security of their health information than nonusers.

The report suggests that as more Americans take up health insurance plans, spurred on by passage of the recent healthcare reform legislation, there will be a corresponding increase in the number of visits to doctors and the need for online conversations between doctors and patients will increase.

"eVisits are likely to become a more central part of both physicians' triage process and insurers' cost-control strategies," the report said.

As patients increasingly use this new form of medical communication, the report recommends that customer experience professionals at both health insurers and health centers should: explore payment models that encourage virtual care; make eVisits more equal to in-person visits in the eyes of mainstream users; and provide clear, contextual, step-by-step instructions to guide patients through the eVisit experience.

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