Kaiser Permanente is expanding how patients can use mobile devices to communicate with doctors.

In 2014 Kaiser began developing a program to provide Kaiser health plan enrollees and patients access to their primary care physicians and other providers via a secure video link using their web-enabled smartphone or tablet.

Now Kaiser has completed the work to allow all Kaiser facilities to use the digital doctor program, although it’s up to individual facilities to implement it, Kaiser says. The first unit to offer the service is Kaiser Permanente Northwest, which serves 520,000 medical and 240,000 dental members in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Altogether Kaiser, one of the nation’s biggest healthcare systems, operates 38 medical centers, and 620 medical offices nationwide.

Digital doctor visits are free to plan enrollees and Kaiser expects more patients will use mobile devices than desktop computers to conduct a visit, says Kaiser executive director of Telehealth information technology Angie Stevens. “Smartphones and tablets are inherently optimized for video communications and therefore tend to have more consistent quality than the wide variation of desktop configurations,” she says.

Kaiser did nearly all of the set-up work internally but would not disclose the cost of the system. To schedule a digital doctor visit, Kaiser patients log on to KP.org to make an appointment. Digital office visits are typically for issues such as colds and flu, allergies and asthma, rashes and sunburns, bug bites, minor cuts, sprains and breaks and urinary tract infections or other maladies typically seen in an urgent care facility.

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Kaiser’s digital doctor visit program now enables doctors to have full access to patient medical records and the ability to share those records on screen with patients and medical staff. Patients also will be able to access medical records on their own by logging into My Health Manager, Kaiser Permanente’s online portal that provides members access to their health information and tools such as online appointment scheduling, prescription refill and secure email messaging with doctors.

“Given our established relationship with our patients and access to their full medical record, we have not restricted video visits to specific clinical use cases,” Stevens says. “We encourage our clinicians to leverage the technology as they deem appropriate for the condition and the patient and over time, with volume, we expect to see trends identifying the types of clinical cases or individuals most appropriate for virtual care.”

Kaiser plans to let patients know about digital doctor visits through an extensive consumer education and consumer program, Stevens says. Kaiser has prepared a series of video tutorials that walk patients through how to set up and connect to Kaiser for a digital visit. In some cases patients also may call and schedule a time with a Kaiser digital health support center and a technician for help in setting up the visit.

“We provide our members with the resources they need to ensure they have a convenient, secure way of virtually meeting with their providers,” Stevens says. “This includes online tutorials that provide step-by-step instructions on testing their equipment prior to their visit and, in some cases, the opportunity to actually engage in a live video visit encounter with our technical support staff prior to meeting with the clinician.”

During the virtual visit online providers will be able to help with follow-up care including making referrals to other Kaiser providers and facilities or prescribing medication.

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Later this year Kaiser plans other upgrades to its digital program including more integration with the health system’s interactive patient care system, a hospital bedside entertainment, patient care and medical records program integrated with in-room TVs. Access requires a secure login and password issued to the patient and approved doctors, nurses and other technicians or caregivers. Kaiser patients and plan enrollees already are frequent users of mobile and digital heath technology, Stevens says. Kaiser, which has spent more than $400 million over the past decade on computerizing medical records, says more than 9 million plan members now have access to their digital health records and other digital healthcare features and functions. In 2014 and 2015 members used Kaiser’s digital healthcare management program to:

  • Send 20 million emails to doctors and other care providers.
  • View 37 million test results online.
  • Refill 17 million prescriptions online.
  • Schedule 4 million appointments online. 

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