Objectives: To assess the early impact of implementation of the electronic consults (e-consults) initiative by the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), designed to improve specialty care access.
Study design: Observational cohort study exploiting a natural experiment begun in May 2011 at 12 VHA medical centers and expanded to 122 medical centers by December 2013.
Methods: The following were assessed: 1) growth of e-consults by VHA regional networks, medical centers, and specialty; 2) location of patient's primary care provider (medical center vs community-based outpatient clinic [CBOC]); 3) potential patient miles needed to travel for a specialty care face-to-face consult in place of the observed e-consults using estimated geodesic distance; 4) use of specialty care subsequent to the e-consult.
Results: Of 11,270,638 consults completed in 13 clinics of interest, 217,014 were e-consults (adjusted rate, 1.93 e-consults per 100 consults). The e-consult rate was highest in endocrinology (5.0 per 100), hematology (3.0 per 100), and gastroenterology (3.0 per 100). The percentage of e-consult patients with CBOC-based primary care grew from 28.5% to 44.4% in the first year of implementation and to 45.6% at year 3. Of those e-consult patients from community clinics, the average potential miles needed to travel was 72.1 miles per patient (SD = 72.6; median = 54.6; interquartile range = 17.1-108), translating to a potential savings of 6,875,631 total miles and travel reimbursement costs of $2,853,387.
Conclusions: E-consult volume increased significantly since inception within many medical and surgical specialties. For patients receiving primary care at one of more than 800 CBOCs, e-consults may decrease travel burden and direct travel costs for patients.