Internet Influencing All Aspects of Healthcare

Doctors who have adopted electronic medical records, electronic prescribing, online communication with patients and remote disease monitoring say such tools have boosted their efficiency and the quality of care, a study by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Harris Interactive found.

The study, which is the result of interviews with more than 400 U.S. physicians, also found that about one-third of doctors are adopting or planning to adopt Internet technologies that enhance the care they deliver to patients. And they’re planning to adopt them at relatively aggressive rates — from about 10 percent to 20 percent depending on the tool — greatly bolstering the e-health channel in the next year and a half.

“Many industry experts expected that — at best — the Internet would prove a diversion for doctors who had light clinical practices or a serious interest in computers. But our interviews indicate that 89 percent of physicians use the Internet and that virtually all of these doctors have moved some of their medical knowledge-enrichment activities online. Fully 90 percent of doctors online research clinical information on the Internet,” said Carina von Knoop, a BCG vice president and co-leader of the firm’s e-health initiative. “Also significant is our finding that the busiest clinicians are most likely to turn to the Web to enrich their professional knowledge. These are the doctors who spend more time with patients and who therefore have more opportunities to diagnose conditions, manage patient care, select treatments, and write prescriptions. Quite simply, they are the very doctors that healthcare organizations target as they seek to influence the delivery of healthcare.”

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Almost every player in the healthcare industry has a stake in increased Internet use by physicians. For example, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry spent $13 billion in 2000 to reach doctors, but spent only 1 percent of that amount on Internet channels. Pharmaceutical companies instead rely on drug reps as the preferred medium for physician education. But the average doctor spends less than one hour a week with reps — compared with about three hours a week seeking medical information online. It might be wise to see some of the pharmaceutical marketing money be shifted online.

The study also found that the vast majority of doctors who visit health-related Web sites — ranging from 70 percent to 90 percent depending on the survey question — report that the information they find online has an impact on medical decisions about diagnoses and treatment. Roughly one-third of these same doctors report that the information they find on the Internet has a major impact on the way they interact with patients; around 20 percent say that it has a major impact on their knowledge of symptoms and diagnoses, as well as on the way they interact with patients; and 13 percent say it has a major impact on the drugs they prescribe.

“Clearly, in an environment of increased financial and competitive pressures, pharmaceutical companies, managed care organizations, and healthcare delivery systems cannot afford to ignore the potential advantages that online knowledge-enrichment tools offer,” von Knoop said. “Yet these advantages will not accrue to incumbents that continue to relegate e-health to small-scale experiments at the periphery of the businesses.”

Healthcare companies that seek to tap into the power of online knowledge enrichment will find their task made simpler by the fact that physicians, unlike patients, are easy to find online. More than two-thirds of physicians surveyed behave like online consumers, returning regularly to between two and five sites. Doctors who visit at least one site regularly named WebMD, Medscape and Physicians’ Online as their top three destinations.

The Internet offers doctors more than information sources. Electronic tools that help physicians with their daily patient care can also deliver additional value because they get to the heart of the healthcare delivery. The tools that offer the greatest potential to both doctors and incumbents are electronic medical records, electronic prescribing, online communication with patients and remote disease monitoring. About one-third of the doctors in the BCG survey now use or plan to use at least one of the first three tools, and a smaller percentage plan to adopt remote disease monitoring.

More than one-quarter (26 percent) of the physicians surveyed are communicating with patients over the Internet, and 22 percent are relying on electronic medical records to store and track information about their patients. Eleven percent of doctors are prescribing drugs electronically and 5 percent monitor patients’ health electronically, but planned adoption would roughly triple these percentages in the next 18 months.

“Such growth will occur primarily as word spreads among physicians that the tools deliver,” von Knoop said. “Already most users in our survey report that online patient-care tools have improved their overall efficiency, enabled them to deliver better care, increased patient satisfaction, and, in some cases, saved their practices money. The early successes with patient-care tools illustrate the depth and breadth of the opportunities they present to doctors — and healthcare players.”

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