Primary care physicians often send their patients to specialists when they need an expert’s opinion about a condition.
But the transfer of medical records and delays in patients scheduling an appointment with a specialist can take weeks or months. The additional cost and travel time incurred by the patient for a second doctor visit also keeps patients waiting.
Electronic consultations, also known as e-consults, are closing those time gaps by providing specialists immediate and virtual access to patient records, while saving patients from another trip to a doctor.
These time-saving factors are especially beneficial to patients diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare asbestos-related cancer that carries an average life expectancy of nine to 24 months. Treatment for these patients may be improved with faster access to specialists using e-consults.
A 2012 study conducted at the Center for Innovation at the Mayo Clinic noted the value of e-consults “when used judiciously for selected conditions, as done at Mayo, primary care providers and specialists regard the practice as useful and satisfying most of the time.”
However, researchers pointed out the disadvantages: “The specialist only sees the medical record and not the person, the cost is clearly in the assumption that the medical record adequately represents all that a specialist would observe in a direct personal encounter with the patient.”
Although the practice is in its beginning stages, several recognized mesothelioma centers across the U.S. utilize this novel approach to consultations. For veterans, who encompass nearly one-third of all mesothelioma patients, there are a handful of VA healthcare systems that provide the e-consult service.
Electronic consultations work by helping primary care physicians (PCP) efficiently discuss a patient’s medical records with specialists, usually located miles away, to gain insight and evaluate about possible treatment options.
For example, a PCP can remotely send questions or recommendations about a mesothelioma diagnosis or therapeutic concern to a specialist through secure email or web applications like electronic medical record (EMR) systems. Specialists can respond quickly, often increasing the speed in which treatment plans are prepared and executed.
It’s important to note this technology is not for patients to consult virtually with their doctors. As the technology develops, electronic consultations may be mainstreamed in conversations between doctor and patient.
Patients and physicians can experience benefits from this technology through financial savings, improved care and convenience.
E-consults benefit patients by:
Benefits for PCPs and specialists:
A handful of mesothelioma treatment centers across the country provide e-consult services, including:
Surgical oncologist Charles Conway, M.D., who specializes in abdominal cancers, including peritoneal mesothelioma, at the Ochsner Cancer Institute in New Orleans, says the center is interested in using e-consults to make things easier for patients and doctors unfamiliar with mesothelioma.
Because one in three mesothelioma patients is a veteran, it’s important they have easy access to VA-accredited centers that can provide them treatment.
About 40 percent of veterans in the U.S. live in rural communities, making it difficult for them to easily access specialized health care. As more VA health care systems use e-consults, they can deliver faster service, referral processes and initiation of treatment plans for veterans.
While not all VA health care systems are equipped to treat veterans with mesothelioma, they do provide quality care for other conditions.
These centers may not focus on the asbestos-related disease, but they offer veterans e-consults:
E-consults are in the beginning stages, but users of the system believe more family doctors and specialists at cancer centers across the nation will start using it as the technology evolves, and perhaps one day allow patients to meet virtually with their doctors.