Generally, patients spend only a few hours a year with a health care professional. The decisions they make at other times—such as what to eat or drink, whether to exercise, or when to take medication—may have a larger effect on their overall health. A growing body of evidence suggests that patients who stay in touch with their providers between visits may have better health care outcomes.
New technology is expanding options for doctor-patient communication between visits. More than 40% of physician practices in the United States report using an online portal for secure messaging with patients, and a host of mobile applications, wearable devices, and other tools allow patients to easily collect data on long-term conditions or health behaviors to share with their providers.
Consider the following tips to get the most from these new capabilities and help maximize the potential benefits of between-visit communications.
Start With a Good Clinical Encounter
Establishing good rapport and communication during an office visit sets the stage for effective between-visit engagement. Patients report that they are more likely to follow their treatment plan and stay in touch if they like their provider and feel they are receiving high-quality care.
Follow the Patient’s Lead
Ask patients how they’d like to stay in contact between visits. Most patients prefer secure messaging, whereas some prefer phone or voicemail. It’s best to ask and follow their lead.
Encourage Between-Visit Messaging
Respond swiftly to between-visit messages from patients because patients are more likely to contact their providers—and bring up more sensitive topics—through messaging than by phone or in person. This information may enable more comprehensive care.
Make sure the practice’s portal is secure, easy to use, and helpful. Test results and records should be easy to access and presented in a format that engages patients and keeps them coming back. If possible, have a staff member introduce patients to the portal as part of a patient visit. This step ensures that patients learn to use the system.
Determine how patient-generated information will be used before asking patients to track health information with a smartphone or wearable device. Patients may get discouraged if asked to track information that doesn’t get used. Note that the effect of wearables on health outcomes is still unclear.
Don’t Make Assumptions
It’s tempting to assume that electronic communication works best with educated, higher-income patients, but studies show that email and text-based communication may improve outcomes in lower-income patients as well.