Federal law passed in 2009 requires physicians to offer the option of online communications to patients in order for physicians to avoid Medicare reimbursement penalties. Online access to doctors could potentially help patients reduce the number of times they have to visit the doctor’s office. However, some research has shown that patients with online communication access to their doctors tend to actually schedule more visits to the doctor’s office, as reported by NPR.

Previous studies found that this type of online communication system could reduce patient visits by 20%. However, Dr. Ted Palen, an internist at Kaiser Permanente Colorado tested this in a much larger study, and found that patients with online communication access to physicians actually scheduled more doctor’s office visits.

In the study, Palen tested measured rates of office visits, telephone encounters, after-hours clinic visits, emergency department encounters, and hospitalizations between the patients with and without online communication access through MyHealthManager (MHM), a patient online access system.

They found that there was a significant increase in the rates of office visits and telephone encounters. There was a also a significant increase in the rates of after-hours clinic visits, emergency department visits, and hospitalizations between patients with and without online access.

Palen was surprised with these findings. He says these results could be because patients who signed up for online access were actually less healthy than those who did not sign up, although the researchers attempted to control this factor. It could also be that physicians are not used to the online communication tools and requested patients come in to clear issues up. With contradicting studies, it may also just depend on the type of patient as to whether online access increases or decreases office visits.

Some people argue that online access is still an important system to implement, even if it does increases office visits, because it can help improve the relationship between physicians and patients through more communication. This type of increased communication has the potential to lead to better patient outcomes and help improve healthcare.