Patients Warm to Digital Records, Docs Shun Web

Health IT

At a time of raging debate over what the government should do to improve health care, an IBM-sponsored survey set for release next week indicates the Web is vastly underutilized.

Less than one-fifth of the 1,000 patients surveyed said their family doctor uses a Web site to communicate with patients.

But among patients visiting the Emergency Room more than four times in the past year, 70 percent said they’d like greater access to their doctors, like the ability to contact them after hours. To IBM, the results indicate the possibility of fewer ER visits if online communications were more in use.

That’s not the only area where Big Blue sees IT playing a role in improving health care. IBM (NYSE: IBM) is one of several large tech giants supporting the implementation of electronic health records. Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) and IBM, among others, all have initiatives designed to make patient medical records available electronically, making them more accessible to consumers and more portable in the event they switch providers.

The study results suggest that consumers are open to the idea. Overall, 54 percent of those surveyed said they were interested in viewing their medical records online.

The interest bumps up among so-called Generation Y’ers (ages 18 to 29) — 60 percent of that age group said they want online access to their medical records. But among Americans aged 50 or more, only 43 percent said they cared to access their records online.

The push to digitize

On the medical records front, President Obama has set a goal of digitizing every American’s health record by 2014, and he included $19 billion to that end in the economic stimulus package.

In April, Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., introduced a bill that would create a new federal panel and grant program to spur universal e-health records built on open source software. With Microsoft, Google and IBM jumping on the bandwagon, IT figures to play a major role in the coming debate over healthcare reform.

Yet making records more portable may be only one step in tapping IT to improve the nation’s health care system. To IBM, it’s also about strengthening the link between patients and their primary care physician.

“As the nation struggles to address increasing health care costs and improve quality of care, better access to family doctors will have a real impact on people’s health,” Dr. Ted Epperly, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, said in an IBM statement.

That’s where efforts like improving Web-based communications comes into play. In turn, enhancing communications and physician availability can help reduce ER visits, saving money.

“The family doctor is the first line of defense in reducing spiraling health care costs, and Americans need more confidence that preventative care really works,” the IBM statement cited Epperly as saying. IBM also said in its statement that legislation currently under consideration in both the House and Senate puts emphasis on expanding the importance of primary care and wellness.

In spite of the benefits, consumers aren’t all behind the wellness push. The IBM survey found that one in four Americans have not undertaken a “wellness visit” in the past year — despite evidence in the Journal of the American Medical Association that 40 percent of deaths are due to preventable causes, IBM said.

Fifty-five percent of respondents who hadn’t had a wellness visit the past year cited cost as a deterrent, 38 percent do not believe it is worth the expense and more than one-third — the majority over age 50 — perceive wellness visits to be an “abuse of the health care system.”

The IBM-sponsored survey of a thousand adults aged 18 or older was conducted by Braun Research during the week of June 25 to 29. An IBM statement said the survey included a representative sample of insured, underinsured and uninsured adults.

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