This post is the full essay published in the journal Cancer Cytopathology. The journal editor invited me to submit a piece for their “Clinician’s Corner” section, focused on patient online access to their rest results. Who could refuse?! Thanks to @CancerCytopath for making this open access & available to the public. The paper and journal can be accessed here and here.
Outside the walls of medicine, seismic shifts are affecting how health professionals do their jobs and how the public experiences care. People are harnessing information previously outside their reach and are connecting with one another online in ways not imagined a few years ago. With ready access to the Internet and the use of always-on devices, expectations have never been higher for the availability of health-related information and online services.
Inside health care, events are converging to make personal health data more transparent and accessible to patients. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act secures the right for consumers to access their health data despite many who remain unfamiliar with the law and the cumbersome—and potentially costly—process for patients to obtain records. Meaningful-use incentives promote electronic health record (EHR) investment, which creates building blocks on which data can be collected and shared digitally. The advent of secure online patient portals offers a way to share data with patients. With the growth of portals, patients can access their health information and communicate with their health care teams from the comfort of their homes and the convenience of their lives.
Health systems that promote transparency by offering patients remote data access have a desire to improve quality and safety and hope to gain efficiency. The use of online secure patient portals has been associated with higher levels of patient satisfaction and access to care. With emerging research demonstrating that individuals actively involved in their health and their health care achieve better health, patient portals are poised to improve outcomes. Customarily positioned as information gatekeepers who operate through in-person encounters, clinicians are ever more expected to work in an environment of shared EHR data and virtual communication.
Almost 10 years ago, Kaiser Permanente introduced online access to laboratory test results, and currently, more than 7 of 10 members have registered for the kp.org website. Viewing laboratory results is the most frequent user activity, and this is followed by secure e-mail, medication refilling, and appointment scheduling. In a survey examining the emotional reactions of portal users who accessed laboratory test results online, responders felt high levels of appreciation, calm, and relief; few experienced worry, confusion, or fear. The study was notable in that patients who had discussions with their provider about result expectations reported more relief and satisfaction and less confusion than patients who did not speak with their physicians before viewing their results.
OpenNotes is a growing initiative to provide patients online access to encounter notes. A prospective intervention at 3 large health systems found study patients engaged more in their care and reported benefits from note access. Initial concerns from participating providers were largely unfounded, and none elected to stop note access after the research had ended. Although pathology reports have not typically been accessible through patient portals, this has not been the case at the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). Long a leader in digital records, VA began opening patient access to EHR data in 2000. National implementation expanded in 2010 with laboratory results accessed through the Blue Button function. Full access to clinical notes and test results expanded significantly in January 2013. VA patients with online access can view data after a 3-day hold, and pathology reports can be accessed 14 days after completion. The experience of VA patients in accessing their EHR data mirrors the findings of OpenNotes research.
Clinicians voice concerns about patients viewing data without their interpretation and are worried about increasing patient anxiety and workload. Apprehension intensified with the 2014 Department of Health and Human Services ruling allowing patients direct access to laboratory reports. However, missed test results are sure to continue despite provider alerts and established patient-feedback pathways. Shared data empowers patients and promotes self-care. After all, there is no greater stakeholder than the person on whom the test was performed. Research suggests that patients who access their data can improve care quality. One VA patient, after reading an ultrasound report online, remarked, “It said re-do in 6 months, but that time came and went. I called the doctor[,] who says[,] ‘Yeah, it did say that.’ So if I didn’t call, it wouldn’t have got done.” Although open data are not a substitute for a requirement to communicate test results, patients are another set of eyes helping to ensure accountability.
With no evidence of a digital revolution slowdown, health care must leverage technology while simultaneously overcoming its resistance to changing the status quo. Clinicians need to embrace the reality of open data, even in the absence of providers’ explanations. Pathologists should always be mindful that their documentation is read and downloaded by patients. Language must be clear and nonjudgmental, and standard nomenclature should be used when appropriate. These principles should also apply to clinical notes and communication between clinicians in the EHR. Diagnostic uncertainty will exist and continue to engender worry. Patients do not expect simplicity or nonmedical language, but they do want and expect transparency.
In his book The Patient Will See You Now: The Future of Medicine Is in Your Hands, Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist and Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, offers a powerful vision in which health data are democratized and widely available, patients and clinicians work together as partners, and technology is harnessed to meet people’s needs in a cost-effective fashion. With shared health data, the genie is now out of the bottle.
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