E-Patient Update: The Kaiser Permanente Approach To Consumer Health IT

Usually, particularly when I have complaints, I don’t name the providers or vendors who serve my healthcare needs, largely because I don’t want to let my personal gripes overshadow my analysis of a particular health IT issue.

That being said, I thought I’d veer from that rule today, as I wanted to share some details on how Kaiser Permanente, my new provider and health plan, supports consumers with health IT functions. Despite having started with Kaiser – in this case the DC metro division – less than a week ago, being an e-patient I’ve had my hands all over its Web – and mobile-based options for patients.

I’m not going to say the system is perfect by any means. There are some blind alleys on the web site, and some problems in integrating clinical information into consumer records, but so far their set-up largely seems thoughtful and well-managed.

Having allegedly spent $4 billion plus on its Epic rollout, it’s hard to imagine how Kaiser could have realized that big a return even several years later, but it seems that the healthcare giant is at least doing many of the right things.

Getting enrolled

My first contact with Kaiser, after signing up with Healthcare.gov, was a piece of snail-mail which provided us with our insurance cards and a summary of our particular coverage. The insurance cards included my health plan ID/medical record number.

To enroll on the core Kaiser site, kp.org, I had to supply the record number, my birth date and a few other basic pieces of information. I also downloaded the KP app, which offers a far-more-elegant interface to the same functions.

Medical appointments

Once logged in, it was easy to choose a primary care doctor and OB/GYN by searching the site and clicking a selection button. If you wished you could review physician profiles and educational history as well as testimonial quotes from patients about that doctor before you chose them.

Having chosen a doctor, booking an appointment with them online was easy.  As with Zocdoc.com, you entered a range of dates for a possible consult, then chose the slot that worked for you. And if you need to cancel one of those appointments, it’s easy to do so online.

Digital communication

I was glad to see that the Kaiser portal allows you to email your doctor directly, something which is less common than you might think. (My last primary care group wouldn’t even put their doctors on the phone.)

Not only that, everyone I’ve talked to at KP so far– three medical appointments, as I was playing catch-up — has stressed that the email function isn’t just for show. My new providers insisted that they do answer email messages, and that I shouldn’t hesitate to write if I have questions or concerns.

Another way KP leverages digital communications is the simple, but effective, device of texting me when my prescriptions are due for a refill. This may not sound like much, but convenience matters! (I can also check med reminders by logging in to a custom KP meds app.)

Data sharing

Given that everyone at Kaiser uses the same Epic EMR, clinicians are of course more aware of what their colleagues are doing than my past gaggle of disconnected specialists. They seem quite serious about reading this history before seeing me, something which past physicians haven’t always done, even if I was previously seen by someone else in their practice.

KP also uses Epic’s Care Everywhere function, which allows them to pull in a limited summary of care from other Epic-based providers. While Care Everywhere has limits, the providers are making use of what they can.

One small wrinkle was that prior to two of my visits, I filled out a questionnaire online and when asked to submit it to my electronic patient record, did so. Nonetheless, I was asked to fill out the same questionnaire again, on paper, when I saw a specialist.

Test results

KP seems to be set up appropriately to share standard test results. However, I’ve already had one test, a mammogram, and in doing so found out that their data sharing infrastructure isn’t quite complete.

After being scanned, I was told that I’d receive my results via snail-mail, in about two weeks. I’m glad that this was a routine screening, rather than a test to investigate something scary, as I would have been pretty upset with this news if I was worried.

My conclusions

I don’t want to romanticize Kaiser’s consumer HIT services. After all, looked at one way, KP is only doing what integrated health systems are supposed to do, and not without at least a few hitches.

Still, at least on first view, on the whole I’m pretty happy with how Kaiser’s interactive functions are deployed, as well the general attitude staff members seem to have about consumer use of HIT tools. Generally speaking, they seem to encourage it, and for someone like me that’s quite welcome.

As I see it, if providers outside of the Kaiser bubble were as married to a shared infrastructure as KP providers are, my care would be much improved. Let’s see if I still if I still feel that way after the new health plan smell has worn off!

About the author

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.