Patients Message Providers More When Providers Reach Out

Posted on April 26, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

A new study has concluded that patients use secure electronic messaging more when their primary care providers initiate and respond to secure messages.

To conduct the study, the research team worked a large database stocked with information on health care transactions and secure messaging records on 81,645 US Army soldiers. The data also included information from almost 3,000 clinicians with access to a patient portal system. The dataset encompassed the 4-year period between January 2011 and November 2014.

The data, which appears in a paper published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, suggests that current provider-patient exchanges via secure messaging aren’t that common. For example, during the study period just 7 percent of patients initiated a secure message during a given month. Meanwhile, Providers initiated an average of 0.007 messages per patient each month, while responding to 0.09 messages per patient during a month.

That being said, when physicians got more engaged with the messaging process, patients responded dramatically.

Patients who knew their providers were responsive initiated a whopping 334 percent more secure messages than their baseline. Even among patients whose providers responded infrequently to their messages, the level at which they initiated messages to their clinicians was 254 percent higher than with PCPs who weren’t responding. (Oddly, when PCP response rates were at the “medium” level, patients increased messaging by 167 percent.)

In fact, when clinicians communicated more, there seemed to be spillover effects. Specifically, the researchers found that patients messaged PCPs more if that provider was very responsive to other patients, suggesting that there’s a network effect in play here.

Meanwhile, when PCPs were the ones prone to initiating messages, patients were 60 percent more likely to send a secure message. In other words, patients were more energized by PCP responses than clinician-initiated messages.

Of course, for secure messaging to have any real impact on care quality and outcomes, a critical mass of patients need to use messaging tools. Historically, though, providers have struggled to get patients to use their portal, with usage levels hovering between 10 percent and 32 percent.

Usage rates for portals have stayed stubbornly low even when doctors work hard to get their patients interested. Even patients who have signed up to use the portal often don’t follow through, research suggests. And of course, patients who don’t touch the portal aren’t exchanging care-enhancing messages with their provider.

If we’re going to get patients to participate in messaging with their doctor, we’re going to have to admit that the features offered by basic portals simply aren’t that valuable. While most offer patients access to some details of their medical records and test results, and sometimes allow them to schedule appointments, many don’t provide much more.

Meanwhile, a surprising number of providers haven’t even enabled a secure messaging function on their portal, which confines it to being a sterile data receptacle. I’d argue that without offering this feature, portals do almost nothing to engage their typical patient.

Of course, physicians fear being overwhelmed by patient messages, and reasonably fear that they won’t have time to respond adequately. Even though many organizations including the research of Dr. CT Lin has shown this just isn’t the case. That being said, if they want to increase patient engagement – and improve their overall health – secure messaging is one of the simplest tools for making that happen. So even if it means redesigning their workflow or tasking advanced practice nurse with responding to routine queries, it’s worth doing.