New study shows ‘e-visits’ lead to more office visits and fewer new patients

Healthcare providers that use technology to provide patients a convenient alternative to in-person care may not be getting the most out of those programs.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Pennsylvania reviewed 5 years of healthcare encounters at a larger primary care practice, including "e-visits," phone consultations and in-office visits, and discovered that providers that accepted e-visits actually saw a 6% increase in office visits. As a result, physicians spent more time each month seeing patients in person, which led to a 15% decline in new patients, according to the study, which will be published in Management Science.

For the purposes of the study, e-visits were broadly defined to include patient portals, electronic communication and telemedicine. But researchers say the study unearths a new layer of unintended consequences associated with technology that may not be as beneficial as some have anticipated.

RELATED: Telemedicine apps and services make it easier for independent docs to offer virtual visits

“Offering e-visits seems like a great way to save time and money by reducing the need for office visits because routine questions or updates could be done via email,” Hessam Bavafa, an assistant professor of operations and information management at the Wisconsin School of Business, said in an announcement. “The problem is that health care is much more complicated—patients may overreact to minor symptoms or not be clear enough in describing their situation and that leads to doctors feeling obligated to schedule an office visit. The resulting office visits can eliminate any efficiencies gained from e-visits systems.”

The researchers also found no significant improvement in health outcomes among physicians that communicated with patients electronically.

The broad look at e-visits may not slow the industry's growing adoption of new technology like telehealth and remote monitoring, which many see as a way to expand services for patients. Surveys also show patients are increasingly interested in telehealth consultations, and even prefer it when receiving bad news.