New SMS department demonstrates improved response to patients

You may have wondered how we’re working to meet our members’ and patients’ expectations for improving access to their primary care team. The use of secure communications with their physicians online is one way for members to access their clinical team to get their care needs met versus a phone or face-to-face visit.

At the same time, you’ve probably guessed that the volume of emails and other digital communications to clinicians can be overwhelming. In December, we launched a new way of serving patients’ communications needs, while streamlining and improving interactions with clinicians.

The Secure Messaging Service (SMS) Department now helps our care teams respond to patients’ online messages as one way to assure access to the clinical team. The new SMS team has just completed the second implementation wave of transitioning clinic secure messages.

“The challenge—and the opportunity—of our primary care teams to efficiently and reliably handle secure patient messages is a daily issue,” says Dr. Chris Cable, Clinical Excellence and Integration medical director. “We’re excited to see how the SMS team can improve the efficiency in which virtual care is utilized, while our clinical teams appreciate and utilize the extra availability they have to focus on providing care to our expanded membership base.”

Partnering with clinicians

SMS-MD collaborationThe SMS team has a multidisciplinary approach to communications, and they work in partnership with clinicians, RNs, medical assistants (MAs), patient access representatives (PARs), and a clinical operations supervisor to assess incoming messages and decide which ones they can address without involving a clinician. The team then drafts a response in plain language. If a clinician is needed, the team supplies background information from the patient record and summarizes the request. The process improves patient understanding, increases efficient use of resources, and reduces response time. With this new service, you could get a response to your message in less than two hours.

“These team members are experienced RNs, MAs, and PARs who have a broad range of experience in primary and urgent care along with specialty,” says Barbara Trehearne, chief nurse and vice president of Clinical Excellence & Integration. “They are well qualified to manage an array of messages to support patient response in a timely manner as well as the teams.”

Early results from the first two weeks of the program in the Veradale, Everett, and Renton clinics show promise. Roughly 50 percent of the patient inquiry messages to those clinics were resolved without involving the clinician.

Clinic staff also reported good results. Rob Cook, medical center manager at Everett, says the volume of incoming messages has fallen dramatically. “The in-basket looks amazing,” he says. “It’s incredible.” Renton LPN Regina Green says, “Now I can concentrate and focus on other work.”

Improvements in quality of care

Clinicians have noted improved quality of care. Recounting one specific case, Veradale LPN Jennifer Bickle says, “The care advice given to this patient regarding her rash was perfect.” Dr. Andy Batchelder wrote, “Thank you for the excellent job you did taking care of this patient’s medical excuse letter. My staff here could not have done a better job.”

The SMS program is expected to be phased in to the rest of our medical centers by the end of the first quarter, and as new team members are hired and trained.