Background: Many health organizations are exploring the potential of electronic consultation (eConsult) services to address excessive wait times for specialist care.
Objective: To understand the effectiveness, population impact and costs associated with implementation of eConsult services.
Methods: We conducted a systematic review using a narrative synthesis approach. We searched Medline and Embase from inception to August 2014 (English/French). Included studies focused on communication between primary care providers and specialist physicians through an asynchronous, directed communication over a secure electronic medium. We assessed study quality with a modified version of the Effective Public Health Practice Project Quality Assessment Tool for Quantitative Studies. We synthesized the results using the Triple Aim framework.
Results: A total of 36 studies were included. Most were set in the USA and focused on single-specialty services (most commonly dermatology). Population health outcomes included patient populations, adoption/utilization and provider attitudes. Providers cited timely advice from specialists, good medical care, confirmation of diagnoses and educational benefits. No clinical outcomes were reported. Patient experience of care was generally positive, with quick specialist response times (4.6 hours to 3.9 days), avoided referrals (12-84%) and satisfaction ranging from 78% to 93%. System costs were reported in only seven studies using different outcome measures and settings, limiting comparability.
Conclusion: Though eConsult systems are highly acceptable for patients and providers and deliver improved access to specialist advice, gaps remain regarding eConsult's impact on population health and system costs. To achieve optimized health system performance, eConsult services must include specialty services as determined by community needs and further explore cost-effectiveness.
Keywords: Access to care; eConsult; electronic consultation; primary care; referral; wait times..
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