Doctors Missing Internet Health Opportunity

Half of all online users say they would be interested in using a Web site operated by their own doctor’s office, but only 4 percent are currently doing so, according to Cyber Dialogue’s Cybercitizen Health study.

Only 9 percent of online users say they are aware of a Web site operated by their doctor’s office. The finding of slow adoption of doctor-driven sites stands in contrast to the rapid overall adoption of Internet health information, with the number of Internet health users increasing 45 percent over the past year to reach 24.8 million US adults as of July 1999.

E-mail communication with patients is another area of slow adoption by doctors. Cyber Dialogue found that 48 percent of online users currently express interest in communicating with their doctors’ office via email, but only 3 percent are currently doing so, and only 11 percent are aware of their doctors’ email address.

“Using the Internet to communicate with doctors’ offices would allow consumers to find answers to many issues, such as questions about a treatment or drug side-effects, without an office visit,” said Scott Reents, Manager of Healthcare Strategies at Cyber Dialogue. “A visit to a doctor’s Web site or an email could cut down on unnecessary office visits as well as make consumers more informed about their health.”

Using the Internet for patient communication is also an opportunity for doctors to build stronger practices. Among those online users who expressed interest in using a doctor’s Web site, 29 percent said they would be likely to switch doctors to do so. Similarly, among those who expressed interest in emailing their doctors, 33 percent said they would be likely to switch doctor to do so.

“This type of consumer demand threatens to completely change the healthcare distribution chain,” said Mark Esiri, CEO of Cyber Dialogue. “The industry has never had to deal with consumers directly — the Internet makes this an imperative.”

Aside from not having their own Web sites, physicians have also not been a major force directing their patients’ use of other health Web sites. Despite the fact that 74 percent of online users using health content say a doctor or pharmacist recommendation would make them more likely to trust a Web site, only 4 percent say that doctor and pharmacist recommendations are currently having an impact on which sites they use.

“There are some clear opportunities for physicians to help improve the quality of information their patient access online, either by providing it themselves or through referrals,” Reents said. “Today, too few doctors are responding to this opportunity.”

The Healthcast 2010 survey of 400 healthcare executives in the US, Canada, the Pacific Rim, and Europe done by PricewaterhouseCoopers found the Internet will be among the factors causing disruptive changes in the health-care system.

For example, 35 percent of the survey’s US respondents felt that by 2010 individuals would store their electronic medical records on a source that is not part of the current healthcare system. Twenty-four percent of respondents thought that source would be an Internet portal site, while 11 percent though patients would use non-healthcare, third-party businesses.

The survey also found that e-business will change interaction between providers and patients. Eighty-nine percent of respondents predict in-office visits will decrease if physicians routinely offer Web-based consulting tools. The reduction, estimated by 59 percent of the respondents to be at 20 to 30 percent, will shift to attending to patients’ needs via the Web.

Consumers in the next decade will better understand healthcare issues and make more decisions about their own treatments as a result of the Internet, the study found. However, among the findings of the survey was the belief that hospitals and insurers are unprepared for the upcoming surge in consumerism. Only 25 percent of those surveyed though hospitals were prepared and just 14 percent thought insurers were prepared to deal with empowered consumers.

“The 2010 consumer will demand speedy, customized healthcare and will frequently turn to the Internet or other intermediaries to sift through or even broker these needs,” said Sandy Lutz, author of PricewaterhouseCoppers’ HealthCast 2010 report. “To prepare, healthcare organizations will need to restructure and adopt retail-like branding, delivery efficiencies, and incentive systems.”

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