Secure electronic communication has significant potential to improve patient engagement, but in order to fully realize its potential, health care organizations must provide users with sufficient education and also provide a sense of confidentiality, according to a new study from Veterans Affairs researchers.

The researchers reported barriers to satisfied use of the secure messaging tool included veterans' discomfort with learning that members of their primary care teams other than the intended provider had access to their messages, care teams' discouraging the veterans from sending personal non-health related information, and refusal by care team staff to use the portal, instead reverting to telephone calls.

"Veterans perceive secure messaging in the My HealtheVet patient portal as a useful tool for communicating with health care teams," the researchers concluded in the study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. "However, to maximize sustained utilization of Secure Messaging, marketing, education, skill building, and system modifications are needed. Data from this study can inform a large-scale quantitative assessment of Secure Messaging users’ experiences in a representative sample to validate qualitative findings."

The researchers used a combination of face-to-face questioning, telephone interviews, and review of secure transmitted messages sent by 33 subjects to gauge the utility of the portal. Eighty-two percent of the veterans were satisfied with the portal at the beginning of the study, and that number rose to 97 percent during the follow-up interviews.

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