Medical practice tests Internet portal for patients

Primary Care Partners is housed in a relatively new building along 12th street in Grand Junction, but the medical practice has deep roots.

Doctors with PC helped form the local physicians’ Independent Practice Association, which was instrumental in helping shape an internationally acclaimed health care system. The practice has grown over the years and now serves more than 60,000 patients, nearly half the population of Mesa County.

And now, Primary Care Partners has once again put Mesa County on the map by earning designation as a Level 3 Patient-Centered Medical Home. The designation is the highest awarded to patient-centered homes by the National Committee for Quality Assurance, a nonprofit organization designed to improve health care quality.

“We’re very proud of that,” said Carol Schlagelck, managing associate for PCP.

The designation was actually awarded to the 40 doctors who work at PCP, said Roger Shenkel, executive director of the practice. The doctors are the first to receive the designation in the Grand Valley.

In addition, PCP has been recognized for its use of electronic health records, part of a nationwide push to provide physicians with easier access to records and enable them to share information about a patient.

PCP has stored several years of patient records in its computer system and recently tested a system that could dramatically improve service to patients. A so-called patient portal available through the Internet enables patients to schedule their preferences for appointments. Because it happens via the web, patients can eliminate some of the frustration that goes with being sick.

“So many people call while they’re on a break,” Schlagelck said. “They can be on hold during the flu season. Now, they can make an appointment online at any hour of the day.”

Following the appointment, the same patients can get lab reports and history of treatment via the portal. They can also check on when a prescription was last filled. Doctors can access the same information.

“The provider will send results to the patient,” said Christine Miller, electronic health records trainer and developer for PCP. “They can also send messages to the patient.”

Such messages can serve such needs as alerting people that flu season is under way.

Patients can even set up an alert system in which their regular e-mail will tell them there’s a new message in the patient portal.

Patients access the portal by clicking on a portal icon on the PCP website. Access to e-mails requires a user name and password, helping ensure communication between doctors and patients remains secure.

The system interfaces with the local Quality Health Network, so it’s easy for local doctors to share information about patients, Schlagelck said.

Said Miller: “The goal is if you have an illness in Albuquerque, doctors in Grand Junction can access your records.”

The system is expected to be available to patients later this year.

While electronic records are more common these days, some doctors continue to hang on to the paper trail or delegate e-mail activity to office employees.

Doctors who are close to retirement will be able to sidestep education about computer systems, but younger doctors don’t have the same option. Penalties are in the offing for physician offices that fail to switch from paper to electronic communication and storage, Miller said. Besides, most recent medical school graduates relish the efficiency of the computer age.

But no matter how efficient the electronic systems become, doctors likely will continue to hold the same primary job — treating patients — as they simultaneously implement efficient innovations that might be on the horizon.