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Faculty Practice

Cure for Some Ills: Physicians, Patients Talk Online

Patient-physician online communication, a technology that has been talked about for years, has made its debut at CUMC. The Department of Ob/Gyn is the first to begin using the services of Relay Health – a provider of reimbursed online doctor-patient communication services – through a pilot program begun in January under the auspices of Columbia's 1,100-member Physician Practice Network (CPPN).

‘Web-visits' are one way to make physicians' practice lives easier, while also benefiting patients. Patients who want to make or cancel appointments, ask for referrals, get test results or refill prescriptions – in other words, require non-urgent care – can get it with the click of the mouse. Physicians, meanwhile, can care for their patients online in a way that most benefits their schedule and practice.

"This is the most logical next step in routine patient-doctor communication, after the telephone," says Richard U. Levine, M.D., clinical professor of obstetrics & gynecology and president of the CPPN. "It works for doctor, patient and office staff. I'm not constantly interrupted by phone calls but, rather, can get to my messages at a time that works for me; my patients can email me at their convenience and know they'll get a response within a specific timeframe, and my office staff has more control over workflow."

Many doctors already communicate with their patients via email, but the practice is not as widespread as it might be because of security concerns or fears that communicating online might increase liability risks. These concerns are unfounded, says Randolph Barrows, M.D., director of strategic information systems for the Columbia Faculty Practice Organization, who has been instrumental in ushering CUMC into the online communication age.

"The Relay Health system is fully encrypted so there are no security worries," he says. "As for liability – this system actually increases net protection for doctors because communication between patient and doctor is legible and well documented. The assistance built into the prescribing capability, for example, actually makes electronic prescribing much safer than paper prescribing.

"And, with web-visits now being reimbursed at $25 per visit by Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, there is even more incentive for physicians to investigate the program."

To learn more about setting up the patient-physician communication system, physicians may contact their departmental administrators or the CPPN administrator, Michelle Burr at