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      Patient Centeredness in Electronic Communication: Evaluation of Patient-to-Health Care Team Secure Messaging

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          As information and communication technology is becoming more widely implemented across health care organizations, patient-provider email or asynchronous electronic secure messaging has the potential to support patient-centered communication. Within the medical home model of the Veterans Health Administration (VA), secure messaging is envisioned as a means to enhance access and strengthen the relationships between veterans and their health care team members. However, despite previous studies that have examined the content of electronic messages exchanged between patients and health care providers, less research has focused on the socioemotional aspects of the communication enacted through those messages.


          Recognizing the potential of secure messaging to facilitate the goals of patient-centered care, the objectives of this analysis were to not only understand why patients and health care team members exchange secure messages but also to examine the socioemotional tone engendered in these messages.


          We conducted a cross-sectional coding evaluation of a corpus of secure messages exchanged between patients and health care team members over 6 months at 8 VA facilities. We identified patients whose medical records showed secure messaging threads containing at least 2 messages and compiled a random sample of these threads. Drawing on previous literature regarding the analysis of asynchronous, patient-provider electronic communication, we developed a coding scheme comprising a series of a priori patient and health care team member codes. Three team members tested the scheme on a subset of the messages and then independently coded the sample of messaging threads.


          Of the 711 messages coded from the 384 messaging threads, 52.5% (373/711) were sent by patients and 47.5% (338/711) by health care team members. Patient and health care team member messages included logistical content (82.6%, 308/373 vs 89.1%, 301/338), were neutral in tone (70.2%, 262/373 vs 82.0%, 277/338), and respectful in nature (25.7%, 96/373 vs 33.4%, 113/338). Secure messages from health care team members sometimes appeared hurried (25.4%, 86/338) but also displayed friendliness or warmth (18.9%, 64/338) and reassurance or encouragement (18.6%, 63/338). Most patient messages involved either providing or seeking information; however, the majority of health care team member messages involved information provision in response to patient questions.


          This evaluation is an important step toward understanding the content and socioemotional tone that is part of the secure messaging exchanges between patients and health care team members. Our findings were encouraging; however, there are opportunities for improvement. As health care organizations seek to supplement traditional encounters with virtual care, they must reexamine their use of secure messaging, including the patient centeredness of the communication, and the potential for more proactive use by health care team members.

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          Most cited references 43

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          A 'patient-centred' approach is increasingly regarded as crucial for the delivery of high quality care by doctors. However, there is considerable ambiguity concerning the exact meaning of the term and the optimum method of measuring the process and outcomes of patient-centred care. This paper reviews the conceptual and empirical literature in order to develop a model of the various aspects of the doctor-patient relationship encompassed by the concept of 'patient-centredness' and to assess the advantages and disadvantages of alternative methods of measurement. Five conceptual dimensions are identified: biopsychosocial perspective; 'patient-as-person'; sharing power and responsibility; therapeutic alliance; and 'doctor-as-person'. Two main approaches to measurement are evaluated: self-report instruments and external observation methods. A number of recommendations concerning the measurement of patient-centredness are made.
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            The goal of patient-centered communication (PCC) is to help practitioners provide care that is concordant with the patient's values, needs and preferences, and that allows patients to provide input and participate actively in decisions regarding their health and health care. PCC is widely endorsed as a central component of high-quality health care, but it is unclear what it is and how to measure it. PCC includes four communication domains: the patient's perspective, the psychosocial context, shared understanding, and sharing power and responsibility. Problems in measuring PCC include lack of theoretical and conceptual clarity, unexamined assumptions, lack of adequate control for patient characteristics and social contexts, modest correlations between survey and observational measures, and overlap of PCC with other constructs. We outline problems in operationalizing PCC, choosing tools for assessing PCC, choosing data sources, identifying mediators of PCC, and clarifying outcomes of PCC. We propose nine areas for improvement: (1) developing theory-based operational definitions of PCC; (2) clarifying what is being measured; (3) accounting for the communication behaviors of each individual in the encounter as well as interactions among them; (4) accounting for context; (5) validating of instruments; (6) interpreting patient ratings of their physicians; (7) doing longitudinal studies; (8) examining pathways and mediators of links between PCC and outcomes; and (9) dealing with the complexity of the construct of PCC. We discuss the use of observational and survey measures, multi-method and mixed-method research, and standardized patients. The increasing influence of the PCC literature to guide medical education, licensure of clinicians, and assessments of quality provides a strong rationale for further clarification of these measurement issues.
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              To assess the effects of web-based care management on glucose and blood pressure control over 12 months in patients with poorly controlled diabetes. For this study, 104 patients with diabetes and HbA(1c) (A1C) > or =9.0% who received their care at a Department of Veterans Affairs medical center were recruited. All participants completed a diabetes education class and were randomized to continue with their usual care (n = 52) or receive web-based care management (n = 52). The web-based group received a notebook computer, glucose and blood pressure monitoring devices, and access to a care management website. The website provided educational modules, accepted uploads from monitoring devices, and had an internal messaging system for patients to communicate with the care manager. Participants receiving web-based care management had lower A1C over 12 months (P < 0.05) when compared with education and usual care. Persistent website users had greater improvement in A1C when compared with intermittent users (-1.9 vs. -1.2%; P = 0.051) or education and usual care (-1.4%; P < 0.05). A larger number of website data uploads was associated with a larger decline in A1C (highest tertile -2.1%, lowest tertile -1.0%; P < 0.02). Hypertensive participants in the web-based group had a greater reduction in systolic blood pressure (P < 0.01). HDL cholesterol rose and triglycerides fell in the web-based group (P < 0.05). Web-based care management may be a useful adjunct in the care of patients with poorly controlled diabetes.

                Author and article information

                J Med Internet Res
                J. Med. Internet Res
                Journal of Medical Internet Research
                JMIR Publications (Toronto, Canada )
                March 2018
                08 March 2018
                : 20
                : 3
                1 Center for Evaluating Patient-Centered Care in the Veterans Health Administration Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital Bedford, MA United States
                2 Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veterans Hospital Bedford, MA United States
                3 Division of Health Informatics and Implementation Science Department of Quantitative Health Sciences University of Massachusetts Medical School Worcester, MA United States
                4 Psychology Field Group Pitzer College Claremont, CA United States
                5 Department of Communication Bryant University Smithfield, RI United States
                6 Veterans and Consumers Health Informatics Office Office of Connected Care Veterans Health Administration, US Department of Veterans Affairs Washington, DC United States
                7 Department of Health, Law, Policy & Management School of Public Health Boston University Boston, MA United States
                Author notes
                Corresponding Author: Timothy P Hogan Timothy.Hogan@
                ©Timothy P Hogan, Tana M Luger, Julie E Volkman, Mary Rocheleau, Nora Mueller, Anna M Barker, Kim M Nazi, Thomas K Houston, Barbara G Bokhour. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (, 08.03.2018.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work, first published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, is properly cited. The complete bibliographic information, a link to the original publication on, as well as this copyright and license information must be included.

                Original Paper
                Original Paper


                veterans, patient-centered care, patient portals, electronic mail, health communication


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