As health IT adoption increases, providers are using technology to reach more patients through the web and give them greater access to online health tools. And while there are many benefits, organizations have seen mixed results so far. 

For example, one recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that patients with access to their online records and other self-service tools from their provider made more visits to doctors’ offices and emergency rooms compared to people without those tools available.

One perceived benefit of offering that access is that patients who can look up information on their own, place requests for prescription refills online, email simple questions or complete other tasks will have less of a need to see their doctor in person.

Researchers from Kaiser Permanente Colorado in Denver looked at 44,000 patients who could view their medical records online and email doctors, as well as a group of the same size and with similar demographics and medical profiles without that capability. The study found that patient visits went up in the year after the latter group starting using electronic records, while they went down or stayed the same for the former.

The increase included both scheduled doctor’s appointments and visits to the emergency room and after-hours clinics.

While researchers weren’t sure of the exact reasons for the difference, they speculated it may have been because patients with online access could identify more health concerns or that the types of patients who use those tools are more likely to make in-person visits. Though more visits means greater costs for the health care system, researchers warned against interpreting the study’s results as a warning against offering online access.

That’s especially worth noting since, as other studies have shown, patients want access to online tools that help them manage their health care.

E-visits result in fewer tests, more prescriptions

Another recent study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found mixed results regarding patients receiving remote examinations from doctors in so-called “e-visits.”

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System looked at information from more than 8,000 patient encounters for sinusitis and urinary tract infection, out of which around 7% were e-visits.

The results: During e-visits, doctors’ diagnoses were found to be just as accurate as during in-person appointments, and e-visits allowed doctors to order fewer tests.

However, doctors during e-visits were also much more likely to order prescriptions. The reason, according to researchers, is that when doctors aren’t able to see patients in person, they’re more likely to take a conservative approach and order antibiotics, even in cases when antibiotics may not have a clear benefit.

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