Patient Portals are Good News for Medical Consumers

The days of vast paper records and colorful files in your doctor’s office papering the walls from floor to ceiling are rapidly changing. As physicians, clinics, outpatient service providers and hospitals grapple with evolving digital technology and healthcare mandates, maintaining accurate electronic records has become a priority. The changes are taking time, are costly for providers, and are confusing for patients. But the end result, sometime in the future, will be consistent reporting and patient tracking, truly portable records, simplified access, and improved patient safety and quality.

The healthcare world is being forced to comply by evolving Federal and State mandates and policies. Federal reimbursement strategies for Medicare and Medicaid providers require movement to these new ways of tracking data, though implementation is happening in stages. Called “Meaningful Use” regulations, providers participating in these federal programs have deadlines for implementing Electronic Health Records (EHRs), and in the coming years will continue adding other technological requirements.

The rest of the provider world is following – and sometimes leading — at varying degrees of enthusiasm and compliance. Each of us likely has seen evidence of this new healthcare world:  Many providers make appointments by email or text, X-rays and other diagnostic images are sent to providers electronically, and patient portals are being established that allow patients to review their records, test results and medical histories online through their providers’ websites.

There also had been an uptick in telephone and email-based medical services, from scheduling appointments to communicating with nurses and physicians. Patients who live in more rural areas or who suffer from chronic disease such as diabetes or congestive heart failure can complete simple testing online, such as stepping on a scale that sends your weight to a monitoring service, as well as testing your blood pressure or sugar levels and having this data sent electronically to a medical professional. By reviewing these results, provider can flag vital metrics that might indicate a medical problem or need for an intervention.

For the most part, the uptake of patient portals has followed on the heels of electronic health records. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, 41 percent of family practice physicians use portals for secure messaging, another 35 percent use them for patient education, and about one-third use them for prescribing medications and scheduling appointments.

For patients, using portals is relatively easy – provided you have an email address. There is a small learning curve though, and for older patients not as comfortable as Millennials with technology – or for people who don’t have access to the Internet or smart phones – access is more difficult. Getting started typically requires setting up a confidential user ID and password. Then, in addition to scheduling and record viewing, many providers offer a wide spectrum of educational materials and help lines on topics ranging from nutrition and fitness, to preventing heart disease or diabetes.

Communicating through portals can save nurses and receptionists time, too, since the messages pop up in real time on their computer screens. Patient-to-doctor or nurse direct communication also cuts out other staff members’ interpretation of medical issues and patient needs that can occur with phone calls or voicemail. And portals can contain updated prescription information, immunization records, medical procedures and dates, visit logs and family history, items that are vital for your physician, for hospitals, and for you, especially if there’s an emergency.

There remain other barriers, though. For example, most portals are English only, which poses a challenge for populations in inner cities and communities that can contain as many as 150 different languages and dialects. And many of these populations don’t have email accounts or trust technology, which also is true for many seniors, regardless of ethnicity, location, or income. These issues are being addressed, though, and eventually, most patients will be using online tools.

Meanwhile, for portal enthusiasts, confidential access to your personal health information has never been easier, nor has the ability to quickly and easily make appointments, leave messages and check recent test results. It’s a brave new world – but in this case, it’s changing for the better relative to quality, patient safety and consumer engagement.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Diet and Colorectal Cancer

Diet plays an integral role in keeping us healthy. But beyond strong bones, eyes and teeth, a proper diet also helps prevent or reduce the likelihood of contracting a number of serious illnesses, including many kinds of cancers. One specific example is colon (colorectal) cancer, which kills more than 50,000 men and women a year in the United States alone.

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer.  American Cancer Society estimates for the number of newly diagnosed U.S. colon cancer cases exceeds 103,000 men and women, and another 37,000 will be diagnosed with rectal cancer.

Studies suggest that diet is a key contributor to colon cancer risk. Colon cancer is most prevalent in Westernized societies, where diets are higher in animal products and processed foods and lower in unrefined plant foods.  The cells lining the intestinal tract come into direct contact with what we choose to eat, and the substances contained in our food can have profound effects on these cells and tissues. The protective value of fruits and vegetables has been established by several studies following subjects for years, keeping track of dietary patterns and colon cancer diagnoses.

Our nutritional choices can help prevent colon cancer, especially if our diet includes more vegetables and fruits and less refined and processed foods. Nutritious foods are very rich in fiber, and disease-causing foods are generally fiber-deficient. Several food components that may modulate colon cancer risk have been identified: Fiber, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and certain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals all play a partial role. Red meat and processed meats are the most cancer causing, but all meats and dairy products do not contain any fiber, and are also lacking in anti-oxidants and phytochemicals. Foods made from refined grains (such as white bread, white rice, and pasta) are also not only fiber deficient but void of micronutrients and phytochemicals as well – these foods are also associated with colon and rectal cancers.

Prevention starts with awareness

March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and the perfect time to become familiar with risk factors and prevention. Risk factors include:

  • Age 50 or older
  • A family history of cancer of the colon or rectum
  • A personal history of cancer of the colon, rectum, ovary, endometrium, or breast
  • History of polyps in the colon
  • A history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestine) or Crohn’s disease
  • Eating a diet high in fat (especially from red meat)
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use

The prognosis and chance of recovery following a colon cancer diagnosis depends on several items, including the stage of the cancer when discovered, damage it may have already caused, blood chemistry and a patient’s general health. If you experience any stomach discomfort, bleeding in your stool, or sudden weight loss, contact your physician immediately.

Beginning at age 50 (age 45 for African Americans), both men and women at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should receive a screening test. These tests are designed to find both early cancer and polyps. There are simple blood and stool tests, and surgical testing such as colonoscopies can be done virtually (using diagnostic imagery) or surgically. Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you.

People once thought that there was little that they could do to protect themselves against cancer. But we’ve learned more about how the disease develops and what biological and environmental factors increase cancer risk. We now have better weapons for fighting the disease, including more options for diagnosis and treatment, improved therapies and new technologies for early detection.

In a world where so much is beyond our control, it’s nice to know that we can still make smart choices that are likely to improve or maintain our health. Research suggests that up to 35 percent of cancers are related to poor diet. Choosing a diet rich in nutrient-dense plant foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds is a simple step we can take to protect ourselves and our loved ones against colon cancer. And by remaining active and exercising regularly, we can reduce our risk of cancer and other health problems.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Fighting the Winter Blahs

Seasonal blahs generally means less interaction with others or isolation – and neither are good for our health. Several research studies have shown a strong correlation between social interaction and health and well-being among adults, and have suggested that social isolation may have significant adverse effects, especially for older adults. For example, study results indicate that:

  • Social relationships are consistently associated with biomarkers of health. Positive indicators of social well-being may be associated with lower levels of interleukin-6 in otherwise healthy people. Interleukin-6 is an inflammatory factor implicated in age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and some forms of cancer.
  • Caring for children and grandchildren makes us healthier and more active. We experience a strong emotional bond that often leads to a more active lifestyle, healthier meals and more activities. If someone doesn’t have anyone to care for, though, it’s important to visit with friends or seek out opportunities to interact with others as often as possible.
  • Social isolation constitutes a major risk factor for morbidity and mortality, especially in older adults.
  • Loneliness may have a physical as well as an emotional impact. For example, people who are lonely frequently have elevated systolic blood pressure.
  • Loneliness is a unique risk factor for symptoms of depression, and loneliness and depression have a synergistic adverse effect on well-being, especially in middle-aged and older adults.

Regardless of the season, it’s always beneficial to try and continue our normal routines to help feel like we’re still in control. We can consciously try to not over-eat and make time for exercise and rest. Additionally, personal outreach, especially socializing and connecting with old friends and associates, is important for our emotional health. Today’s electronic world often allows us instantaneous messaging and the ability to connect with friends and family far away, but virtual communication through email and tools like Facebook and Twitter can’t replace the value of face-to-face interactions. While digital outreach is valuable and sometimes our easiest option, the Internet tends to act as a buffer between us and real intimacy.

Relationships and effective communication are built on eye contact, touch, feedback and unspoken physical communication. When possible, make the effort to visit friends and neighbors, attend parties and gatherings, contribute personal time through charitable efforts and catch up with people in person. Pursuing hobbies and activities that get us out of the house and moving are important, too. Yoga, art classes, dance, exercise, reading groups, quilting circles, bowling and even scrapbooking can get us out of the house and keep us more active.

Here are a few other tips to help keep us healthier during the remaining cooler months:

  • Get outside. Even if it is gray and cloudy, the effects of daylight are beneficial. In addition to more exposure to daylight, fresh air is stimulating, and walking outdoors revitalizes us.
  • Balanced nutrition. A well-balanced, nutritious diet will provide more energy and help quell carb cravings. Comfort food tastes good and it may make us feel better for the short-term, but a balanced diet of vegetables, fruits, lean proteins and whole grains will help keep our weight in check and make us feel better in the long run.
  • Take vitamins or supplements. Getting our recommended daily amounts of vitamins and minerals can help improve our energy, particularly if we are deficient in key nutrients. There are a variety of seasonal supplements available, but check with a physician or naturopath before taking mega-doses or herbal formulations. A multi-vitamin and mineral supplement may be all we need.
  • Move our body. Regardless of the time of year, regular exercise is essential for overall health. Even if the weather has us mostly relegated to the indoors, we can still head to our local gym or exercise in the comfort of our home. Getting our body moving will help battle winter weight gain, boost endorphins, and may even help us sleep more soundly. If dressed for the weather, walks and hikes outdoors are invigorating and good for us physically and mentally. And yoga, meditation and classes that promote group stretching and exercise are good for us physically and socially.
  • Prioritize social activities. Stay connected to a social network. Getting out of the house and doing enjoyable things with friends and family can do wonders for cheering us up. Go to a movie or make a dinner date. Plan regular social activities and, weather permitting, get outdoors for a group hike, skiing or other activity.
  • Consider getting help. If stress and depression are still interfering with your daily functioning, seek professional help. Antidepressants and certain types of psychotherapy have proven effective in helping people cope with seasonal mood changes.

The important thing is to keep moving, interact with others and to take control of our bodies and minds so the “winter blues” don’t take control of us!

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Sharing Wellness Messages Online Boosts Participation

As employers increasingly look to expand participation in health and wellness programs in and out of the workplace, they are constantly examining the range of tools available for sharing messages, communicating benefits, and recognizing employee participation and successes.

As an employer, you may already have posters, written wellness tips, or a newsletter and other communication to promote employee health and wellness. In many organizations, employees go online to complete their personal healthcare assessments, a wellness champion shares health information details, and companies have fitness and nutrition experts come to the workplace. So the next logical step involves reaching audiences when they are away from the office.

Digital communication and social networking are rapidly evolving into primary outreach vehicles for employees and their families. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle isn’t a part-time commitment; while employers were once reticent to communicate with employees beyond work borders, today’s electronic media have changed boundaries involving the availability of information. Now employees are interested in accessing benefits details and useful tips, ideas, nutritional information and other resources around the clock, especially data that helps them live, eat, exercise and pursue their lives in a healthier manner.

Social networking allows people to communicate with one another wherever they are and whenever they choose. As a result, it can be utilized as a catalyst for improving employee participation in ways that traditional communication programs cannot. And the availability of platforms like Facebook, Instagram, websites and a wide variety of messaging services and smart phone apps can translate into increased participation and worker engagement.

On Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, for example, people can share information among their networks of friends and colleagues. That includes articles, blogs, news, opinions, reviews, recipes and much more. They also can form online groups linked by common interests such as general fitness, charity walks, running or bicycle rides, diets and nutritional resources, and much more. Employees can reach out to one another and their wider networks of friends through these media, invite others to join them, share results or goals, and compete for bragging rights.

Employers can participate in this wellness outreach, too, by establishing Facebook and Twitter accounts that focus on health and wellness, posting information on their websites, promoting ideas, sharing articles and event notices, and recognizing employee achievements and team milestones. And the price is right – the investment is time, as most of these vehicles are free to use.

Another good way to increase engagement in health and wellness is to allow employees to help decide what gets posted, shared or communicated via social media. And interactive tools are great for congratulating employees who reach important goals, such as competing in a 5K run, marathon or fitness program, or to invite others to join them in these endeavors. Privacy issues have to be respected, but like any other form of public communication, information can be vetted before it’s posted or shared to ensure compliance with legal, HR and ethical standards and codes of appropriate conduct.

Achieving wellness goals is much easier when you’re not in it alone. Employing tools people already use to plan group activities, promote support and recognize successes can increase retention, boost morale and help everyone improve wellness while trying to get a handle on health care costs.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!