Each of the Air Force’s 76 medical facilities has signed on to a secure health care messaging system that gives patients the option of communicating online with their doctors, nurses and medical technicians.
Called MiCare, the online portal lets airmen and their families and beneficiaries view their health care records, make appointments, fill prescriptions and request answers to nonurgent medical concerns, according to the Air Force.
The system was first considered in 2008, said Col. Markham Brown, chairman of primary care services at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, the largest primary care platform in the Air Force.
A pilot MiCare program began in 2011; in 2012, the Air Force began rolling it out across the service.
The system went servicewide early this year, Brown said, and so far more than 366,000 Air Force health care beneficiaries have signed up.
Brown recently spoke with Air Force Times about how the system works and how users can get the most out of it. Here’s what you need to know:
How MiCare works
If you’re an Air Force health care beneficiary, you should get a face-to-face invitation for MiCare from your provider. This first step is done in person as a security measure. An email invitation will follow. Once you’ve validated some personal information, you’re virtually connected to your clinic and health care team.
From the MiCare homepage, you can select from a menu of options: Check your health care record, request an appointment or medication refill, view lab test results or message your provider.
Once there’s a response, you’ll receive notification via text message or email, depending on the option you’ve selected. The notification will only let you know the response is ready. You’ll have to log in to MiCare to view it.
“Simple things that can be done outside an appointment can now be done through this website,” Brown said.
Why sign up?
You may end up making fewer trips to a military treatment facility. Eighty-six percent of more than 13,000 users recently surveyed said MiCare’s messaging system helped them avoid a trip to the MTF or the emergency room.
MiCare can also help cut down on phone tag between doctors and patients, Brown said. Patients “can initiate a request when it’s convenient for them. All members of the team — the provider, the nurse, the technician — can see a message has been initiated. So there’s visibility even when a provider is in with patients.”
A member of the health care team will then answer the request at his or her convenience, ideally the same day.
“The beauty of it as far as effectiveness is it saves a lot of phone tag, leaving messages back and forth, the frustration of not getting through,” Brown said.
If a message to your health care team isn’t responded to within 72 hours, Brown said, it’s considered overdue. The team will be notified and your message will be flagged for response.
But most requests are answered the same day — and that’s the goal. Health care providers are encouraged to get back to patients as soon as possible, whether with a response or with an acknowledgment that the message was received and is being worked on, Brown said.
There are several other benefits, Brown said. Facilities that have at least 30 percent of their patients signed up to MiCare experience a noticeable drop in phone traffic, particularly during peak hours. That can translate to less waiting — and more focused attention — when you do have to go in for an appointment.
MiCare can also help patients take ownership of their health record and care, Brown said.
“It’s set up so the results of labs, radiology results, X-rays and other information patients have signed up to receive are uploaded into MiCare,” he said. “They can see their own results without even communicating with a provider.”
Another benefit: A library of evidence-based health care information includes videos and graphics for everything from back and knee pain exercises to how to administer insulin, Brown said.
Medical facilities can also use MiCare to let patients know about holiday hours, closings, health fairs, special events and the arrival of flu vaccinations, among others.
Patients say they feel moreconnected now that they use MiCare, Brown said. That’s because they are getting timely, personalized responses to their questions.
Participants are overwhelmingly happy with MiCare, according to the survey. Ninety-seven percent of the more than 13,000 surveyed said they were satisfied with their experience.
When to avoid MiCare
Even though health care teams usually respond quickly to messages, you shouldn’t use MiCare if you have an urgent, same-day need, Brown said.
“If you’re out of a medication and it’s a serious medication, you wouldn’t want to use MiCare” to request a refill, he said. “Someone with chest pain or a blood sugar problem, anything where time is of the essence, you wouldn’t want to use that.”
The goal isn’t to eliminate doctor’s appointments, Brown said. “You can‘t hear a heartbeat over the phone. You can’t see a rash over the phone. Those are things best handled in an appointment.”
Others using it
The Army and the Navy both have versions of MiCare. The Army’s is called the Army Medical Secure Messaging Service; the Navy calls it secure messaging, according to an Air Force news release.
Their systems had more than half a million participants combined by the end of February.
Not everyone has welcomed the new system, Brown said. “We certainly had some that were skeptical of the new technology, that it was more work and one more thing we have to monitor.”
That changes once they start using it, he said.