Software puts care in patient's hands


January 11, 1994|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,Staff Writer

Most people delegate responsibility for their own health to doctors because they have no clue what else to do. Would they get involved in managing their own care if they could spend more time talking to doctors about important medical topics and less time on hold with an appointment clerk?

John Dewey, a doctor working on computer programs in Kaiser Permanente's Mid-Atlantic regional office, answered "yes" to this question when he snapped up a personal-wellness computer program at a health fair on the West Coast a few years ago. He took it back to the company's Rockville headquarters and adapted it so patients could call up basic medical information, make appointments, and describe symptoms to their doctors on a computer.

The program, a joint venture with HealthDesk Corp., a Berkeley, Calif., company, is making its test-market debut in Kaiser offices in Towson, Landover, and Reston, Va. More than 90 percent of patients like it, and Kaiser plans to put it into 10,000 homes this spring. Eventually, it could wind up in the homes of as many as 7 million Kaiser members.

Kaiser is the nation's largest and oldest health maintenance organization. Its Mid-Atlantic office, serving more than 350,000 people, is one of the fastest growing. Kaiser distinguishes itself by employing its own doctors and operating its own clinics, features it says allow the company to better control quality.

Now Kaiser wants to see whether it can save money, improve care, and change the practice of medicine by encouraging its patients and doctors to send each other E-mail messages.

The computer program allows patients to access information from a medical encyclopedia, keep track of their own medical records and communicate directly with Kaiser offices and doctors. The hope is that patients will use the system to improve their own knowledge of medical affairs, make appointments and report medical conditions, refill drugs, and take orders from their doctors.

Say you tell the computer you have a headache. The computer will ask, "Do you see stars?"; "Have you had a recent infection?"; and a half-dozen other questions before a nurse comes on the line to decide when to make your appointment.

It can tell you what to expect from a hernia operation or show you how to do a breast exam through animated graphics. The way Dr. Dewey sees it, HealthDesk will do for your health problems what Quickin, the personal finances computer program, did for your budget. The better informed people are, he says, the more eager they will be to make decisions about their own health.

Think how much time you and your doctor could save if you took your own blood pressure and reported back on the computer. "The doctor could review the reading and send E-mail back to reduce your dosage or tell you that you need to come in and have a blood test," Dr. Dewey said. For hypersensitive patients, he said, "it could reduce six or eight office visits a year for blood tests to two a year." The system could be a boon for asthma patients and others with high monitoring needs, he added.

For Kaiser, which already has an extensive computer network of medical records, doctor-patient communication could be a strategic advantage that distinguishes it from competitors. In the long term, the system could provide a more accurate look at health problems and how they are treated.

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