By Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
First website for health plan members launched in the 1990s
Today, Kaiser Permanente boasts a robust, member-friendly and sophisticated Web presence. But like all tech-based communication, the health plan’s website started out small and inauspicious.
You don’t have to go very far back to find the kernel of this medium, the first “Home Page” for the provider’s regional operations across the country. In stages, Kaiser Permanente’s online interaction with members has matured and become integral to patient care.
The first Kaiser Permanente website debuted only 17 years ago, in February 1996.
www.kponline.org was the health plan’s program-wide presence on the World Wide Web, providing a URL for Kaiser Permanente staff to link to and communicate with its members.
The site featured health information and self-care tips, media information, resources on occupational health and injury prevention, answers to frequently asked questions, and Kaiser Permanente facility locations and contact information.
Technology predictions ring true
In its early iteration, KPonline featured articles that were exuberant about the potential for this new medium. An Interactive Technology Task Force final report from November 1995 noted:
“The ATM-based revolution in banking is a hint of the changes to come . . . perhaps the most profound changes will take place when the ‘information superhighway’ reaches into millions of homes throughout the country, giving people access to information in the form of text, voice, graphics, and video on virtually any subject imaginable.”
The Web was not the first investment Kaiser Permanente had made in networked information technology. The health plan anticipated the ability to electronically transfer medical data and speed up internal communications.
Microwave stations pave the way
In the early 1980s, Kaiser Permanente began building a powerful infrastructure of microwave stations in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Known as the Kaiser Permanente Digital Transmission System, the network sought to free the health plan from dependence on the private utility companies that had heretofore supplied its telephone and computer lines.
By 1988 Kaiser Permanente had completed a private regional telecommunications network, ranging from Santa Teresa in the southern Bay Area to Santa Rosa north of the bay and extending to Roseville, east of Sacramento.
The system was managed from a control center at 1950 Franklin Street in Oakland. Cost was a driving force in the project; analysts projected a savings of $15 million over the first 10 years of operation.
This network prepared the health plan for the enormous potential uses of high-bandwidth communications. Jim Harvey, manager of the system, explained in a 1988 internal newsletter:
“Despite the distance between facilities and personnel in our Northern California Region, this system will enable us to come together quickly to discuss issues and answer questions that used to take months of time and miles of travel to resolve.”
Health plan earns honors for tech advances
The commitment to technology has continued at Kaiser Permanente, which today is a global model for medical communications technology.
Examples abound: Just last year Kaiser Permanente received six eHealthcare Leadership Awards for its commitment to using online and mobile technologies to support its mission of total health through patient engagement.
Today, more than 4.2 million members use My Health Manager on kp.org, Kaiser Permanente’s personal health record program.
The feature allows mobile device users to access most test results, email their doctors, make appointments, and order prescription refills for delivery by mail.
Enhanced patient-provider communication, facilitated by My Health Manager, has helped Kaiser Permanente to improve its quality of care ratings, research shows. Secure email in particular has resulted in better management of chronic diseases.
The results of the Kaiser Permanente 2010 study were published in Health Affairs, July 2010.