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Veterans Salute Secure Messaging in Study of Portal Users

"Data suggest respondents’ perceptions of the usefulness of secure messaging are associated with frequency of use."

By Frank Irving

- Veterans who participated in a recently reported survey found secure email messaging to be a useful and timesaving tool for common medical communication tasks and for submitting health-related questions. The large-scale research study solicited responses from users of the Veteran Health Administration’s web-based patient portal, My HealtheVet, part of the electronic health records system for service members.

U.S. veterans found secure messaging to be a useful and timesaving tool in a recent survey of My HealtheVet users.

The survey, results of which were published last week in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, collected responses from 819 veterans — all of whom had opted in to use My HealtheVet — at two Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Centers in Boston and Tampa, Fla.

About 76 percent of respondent veterans said secure messaging is a good communication tool, with 72 percent reporting that it saved time and 66 percent saying it was easy to use. Roughly 84 percent indicated intention to use secure messaging in the future; however, about 42 percent noted that the tool could be improved and 40 percent said they would like to receive education and/or support on how to use the portal and messaging system to manage their health.

Respondents found the following functions most useful: completing medication refills (67 percent), obtaining test results (43 percent), asking health-related questions (42 percent) and managing appointments (42 percent).

In addition, slightly more than 8 percent of respondents reported using secure messaging to address sensitive health topics — a finding characterized as notable by the research team. “This suggests that secure messaging offers patients a confidential, secure and safe space to bring up sensitive topics ... avoiding the stigma or embarrassment of discussing these topics in person,” according to the study co-authors.

Frequent computer users among the survey respondents reported higher usefulness scores than infrequent users. “Similarly, scores were significantly higher for veterans who reported using My HealtheVet at least once a week and using secure messaging at least once a month,” the survey report states.

Overall, the study team concluded that its findings are consistent with previously published research outside the VA in regard to older age being negatively associated with frequency of use to contact healthcare providers using secure messaging. Also consistent is the positive correlation between income and preference to use secure messaging to communicate with providers.

The research identifies an opportunity to scale up use of the portal and secure messaging system:

“A vast majority (80 percent) of respondents felt that other veterans would benefit from education on how to access and use My HealtheVet and secure messaging. Furthermore, data suggest respondents’ perceptions of the usefulness of secure messaging are associated with frequency of use. These data warrant consideration for marketing secure messaging and providing education to intended users to ensure audiences understand the benefits and purposes for using this electronic communication tool. Finally, though the vast majority of participants were satisfied with the tool and reported intention to use secure messaging in the future, more than 40 percent reported that secure messaging tool could be improved to make it even more useful.”

The researchers noted a limitation in that the data do not represent veterans who did not opt in to use secure messaging. Respondents were also more likely to be older white males, with higher levels of income and education. “Although this is representative of the current veteran population, it is not representative of the diversification seen in younger active military and new veteran populations,” the report states.

Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense

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