"Every time we communicate, there is a handoff, and if you drop the baton, bad things can happen," says S. Hughes Melton, M.D., of Lebanon, Va. Melton knows all about the difficulties of sending patients to other physicians for treatment; it takes his practice nearly an hour to set up four patient referrals. But a new messaging network being offered by the AAFP in conjunction with Surescripts, operator of the nation's largest electronic prescription network, could drastically reduce the time involved, as well as the potential communication problems.
AAFP Physicians Direct is a secure electronic messaging service for family physicians and other health care professionals, according to AAFP President-elect Glen Stream, M.D., of Spokane, Wash. Stream announced the launch of the product at a Feb. 15 news conference in Washington, D.C.
"Today we celebrate a monumental step forward in the digital transformation of our nation's health care system," said Stream in his opening remarks.
The online messaging system is the result of collaboration between the AAFP and Surescripts. Family physicians and other health care professionals can connect to the Surescripts network, which, according to Surescripts EVP Cris Ross, has about 240,000 health care professional members, and then share information via the Physicians Direct web portal that soon will be directly linked to several electronic health record, or EHR, systems.
Three health information technology companies -- SOAPware, Amazing Charts and e-MDs -- announced at the news conference that they would embed Physicians Direct messaging technology into their current and future products. All three companies' products have been certified as fulfilling EHR "meaningful use" criteria by a recognized certification body.
The first step to subscribe to the AAFP Physicians Direct Web portal for secure messaging is to submit your name and contact information to the Academy. Physicians interested in subscribing to Physicians Direct will be notified by e-mail when the system goes live in April.
The Physicians Direct Web portal will change physicians' daily workflow and make health care more efficient, economical and timely, said Ross. Physicians Direct allows subscribers to share patient information, including physician referrals, discharge summaries and lab results, with their clinical colleagues. Users pay $15 a month to connect and for an unlimited number of messages. Subscribers also have access to a directory that lists everyone on the network.
In addition, subscribers can send message alerts to nonsubscribers, who then can retrieve their messages from a secure Web page within the portal and reply at no charge.
This is "the first service of its kind with a nationwide reach and the first with the capacity to message to nonsubscribers," said Stream. The system supports the patient-centered medical home, or PCMH, model; improves continuity of care; and helps physicians meet some of the federal government's meaningful use requirements for EHRs, he noted.
This new level of clinical data sharing between health care professionals stands to "make care more seamless for our patients," Stream added.
Melton, who also spoke during the news conference, said primary care should "own this process" of physician communication. "AAFP Physicians Direct will make it much more likely that your clinical information will pass cleanly and confidentially from one hand to the next," he said.
The Physicians Direct network will be available to all active AAFP members and all other health care professionals with a national provider identifier number, which should ensure a robust network, according to Steven Waldren, M.D., director of the AAFP's Center for Health IT.
"The value of the network to our members will increase as the volume of subscribers goes up," said Waldren, who was instrumental in bringing the partnership to fruition.
Family physicians transitioning their practices to the PCMH model of care have reported ongoing problems exchanging clinical information in a secure fashion with their peers, said Waldren. "Continuity of care is an important part of the medical home, and so the AAFP took advantage of this opportunity to partner with Surescripts on a national scale to address that obstacle."
Waldren described the new service as a low-cost messaging channel that would eliminate physicians' dependence on faxes, the U.S. Postal Service and other delivery services when sending and tracking patient referrals and following patients' care.
"The network allows the family physician to securely send information wherever it needs to be sent and ensures that when the patient arrives at the physician's office to which he was referred, his records will be there waiting," said Waldren.