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Steve Chodes, St. John's Health System patient, uses MyMercy online service that helps patients track health history, appointments, contact a doctor and renew prescriptions.
Steve Chodes, St. John's Health System patient, uses MyMercy online service that helps patients track health history, appointments, contact a doctor and renew prescriptions.

Portals put physicians in reach without office visits

Posted online
Electronic services recently rolled out by two hospitals and a telecommunications company aim to make the health care delivery process easier even though they have more to do with patient information than medical procedures.

A free online service from Sisters of Mercy Health System, the parent company of St. John’s Health System, helps patients track health history, appointments, contact a doctor and renew prescriptions by using a smart phone or personal computer.

MyMercy, available in most of the company’s four-state region, was announced Nov. 4.
The same day, Dallas-based AT&T announced its ForHealth division to target the health care industry in preparation for electronic records, video doctor visits, remote blood glucose testing devices, medicine bottles that remind patients to take pills and devices that monitor heart rate levels from the patients’ homes.

CoxHealth, meanwhile, launched e-visits earlier this year but has had a patient portal of its own for about two years, said Heidi Hartman, information technology project manager.

Streamlined at St. John’s
The MyMercy system cost $450 million to develop, a figure that includes the cost of an electronic health records system for the four-state system, said Cora Scott, St. John’s
spokeswoman. Scott said no goal has been set for expected savings with the system.

St. John’s physician Rick Williams has nearly 150 patients enrolled in MyMercy. It’s too soon to attach a dollar figure to what it saves his Ozark family practice, but he believes it has streamlined his team’s efforts.

“I think we’ve looked at it more from the side of what’s the best thing for the patient and not the aspect of what’s this saving us or costing us,” Williams said.

For St. John’s patient Steve Chodes, the service means the chief financial officer for Springfield Public Schools can stop using spreadsheets, at least for his personal medical needs.

Chodes had personally created and maintained spreadsheets to track test results from past doctors’ visits.

“MyMercy shows the historical test results online so I don’t have to keep track of it myself,” Chodes said.

Patients enrolled in the service are able to communicate electronically with their physicians at the convenience of both. Chodes said the service is a time-saving tool.

“I’ve gone on the MyMercy Web site and made an appointment for the same day, which frankly, I’d never experienced before,” Chodes said. “I’ve also used it to e-mail a question to my doctor and received a prompt response.”

In the doctor’s office, Williams said the electronic system limits time-consuming phone calls and letters sent by his staff.

“I hope it’s a way for us to get patients more engaged in their health care and open up new avenues of communication with them,” he said.

The Cox portal
With CoxHealth’s Patient Express portal, Hartman said its 13,000 registered patients can make real-time online appointments, receive lab test results, request prescription renewals and health journals, and provide their doctors home-test results such as blood glucose levels.

Another service offered is secure messaging and e-visits with their health care providers, a service that, Hartman said, is cheaper than an office visit. The estimated cost for e-visits is $30, compared to in-person visits that cost roughly $60 to $100.

“Metrics are very difficult so far for us to provide,” Hartman said. “Our best clinics, our clinics that really proactively register, they have been very successful at proving the cost-effectiveness of their front office staff. It’s really more soft-dollars at this point. They can say we saved eight hours of phone time that allowed our staff to be working on other things.”

Hartman and Cox staff believe Patient Express and similar services are the way of the future, pointing to the 32,000 visits through Patient Express in October.

“Physicians would prefer to spend their time with patients with higher acuity,” Hartman said, adding that less acute illnesses can be treated more quickly and efficiently by e-visits. “You can keep those appointments for those patients who really need to see a physician.”

AT&T in the mix
AT&T’s ForHealth division is using its wireless and networking services such as video conferencing and “cloud computing,” under which the company runs computers and applications for clients through the Internet.

The company recorded $4 billion in 2009 revenue from the health care industry. The market for health care information technology is $34 billion this year, according to figures from research firm International Data Corp. But AT&T provides health care coverage for its 1.2 million employees and dependents, making its interest in health care more than just a moneymaking venture.

The services likely will be deployed nationally in 2011, according to AT&T spokeswoman Kathryn McLelland.

Services under development include:
  • mHealth services to help patients manage disease, take medicine, manage weight loss and monitor wellness programs;
  • cloud-based medical image archive applications and security services to permit health care providers to share clinical data; and
  • Smart Slippers, which monitors a patient’s gait to identify pressure signatures and alert caregivers to falls.
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