In the not-too-distant future, it is quite likely that most interactions between patients and the health care system will happen online, according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who partnered with The Commonwealth Fund to review recent trends in digital health care as well as scientific literature.
Thanks to consumer-directed health apps, electronic health records (EHRs), telemedicine, and the like, researchers say that patients are going to dramatically change the way they interact with their doctors. They report their findings in the November issue of the journal Health Affairs.
The researchers estimate that when EHRs are in use in just 30 percent of community-based physicians' offices, the increase in efficiency will:
- Enable doctors to meet the demands of between 4 and 9 percent more patients than they can today
- Help delegate care to physician assistants and nurse practitioners, resulting in 4 to 7 percent fewer visits with doctors
- Reduce the demand for specialists by another 2 to 5 percent since roughly that percentage can stick with generalists
- Deliver care to meet 12 percent more of current demand thanks to telemedicine and digital communication with doctors and nurses
If doctors and patients adopt e-health tools more widely, the group says, these forecasts could be far higher. "When all of these likely effects are added together, it is clear that health IT will help resolve future physician shortages that many believe are around the corner," said the study's lead author Jonathan Weiner in a school news release.
Another report in the same journal by the nonprofit research organization RAND Corp. also finds that the rise in use of physician assistants and nurse practitioners under Obamacare will help ease the burden of looming doctor shortages.
In a recent interview with CNET, Dr. Peter Antall, medical director of the Online Care Group who has been recruiting physicians to practice telemedicine for the past two years, said tools like telemedicine will be more widely practiced in time: "We really feel we're developing a whole new way of practicing medicine, and it's exciting. Patients do have to get comfortable with this, but I remember a time where we were worried about electronic banking, and we got over that."
The authors reviewed health informatics and health services research literature through June using MEDLINE, the Cochrane Database, and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's database on health IT. And while they acknowledged that more research needs to be done, they said it seemed clear that digital health tools will likely have the greatest impact on health care in the U.S. in the coming decade or two.