Although patient portals have the potential to not only meet requirements, but also provide a delightful user experience, a report released in March 2017 shows these portals seem to be popular with care providers, but not so much with patients. The U.S. Government Accountability Office discovered 88 percent of hospitals and 87 percent of physician practices offered patient portals. However, only 15 percent of hospitals’ and 30 percent of physicians practices’ patients accessed medical information through the portal.

While Meaningful Use may have spurred widespread patient portal implementation, it seems the chosen technology did not meet the needs of patients, despite the inherent engagement and care-plan adherence benefits. This is why in 2018, both hospitals and practices need to put “evaluate and improve my portal” on their New Year’s resolution list.

A number of gaps may emerge during this analysis, including incomplete information and lack of associated patient engagement tools that support the organization’s population health management (PHM) strategy. The bottom line throughout this assessment and optimization is that while achieving clinical and financial goals is important, the portal, like your care, must also be patient-centered.

If you build it…

During the patient portal implementation spree in the early part of this decade, many organizations assumed (or were told) any portal technology that satisfied Meaningful Use requirements would also satisfy patients. As such, organizations may have not yet studied portal adoption and usage rates.

The first step in improving your portal is to determine what patients like and dislike about it. For example, if an organization has gone through a recent merger or acquisition, it may be juggling multiple portal platforms and patients could have trouble accessing their data from multiple providers across the newly aligned organization.

Even if the portal does provide the information and tools patients want, perhaps patients find it so difficult to navigate they get frustrated and stop accessing it. Some patients never log-in to the portal for the first time because instructions are sent in the mail days or weeks after an office visit, which can diminish their motivation to engage in their care. Regardless of the reasons, learning what patients dislike about the portal is a major step in improving adoption rates.

Make it more useful

To earn Meaningful Use attestation, the only features a portal needed to offer was to first, allow patients to access a portion of the chart information and second, for patients to exchange secure messages with their physicians. This limited functionality is not likely to encourage patients to repeatedly access the platform. In 2018, organizations need to focus on offering useful features to make the portal indispensable for patients, even for the healthy, occasional user.

For example, the portal could help make patients’ life easier by offering online appointment scheduling and bill payment. Not only are these features more convenient for them, it benefits the practice in numerous ways. Online scheduling can reduce the number of incoming phone calls and free up time for administrative staff, while online bill payment can reduce collections efforts and accelerate cash flow. Organizations can also make the portal more useful for both patients and providers by offering patient satisfaction and outcome survey functionality that automatically distributes surveys based on pre-defined rules. Once answered in the portal, a survey tool can then collect, analyze and deliver reports on responses.

Taking functionality even deeper, the portal should support your population health management (PHM) strategy. For example, when the PHM technology automatically initiates a clinical intervention based on certain test results combined with other pre-defined rules, the portal can serve as the communication hub for providers and patients. The case manager can inquire about the patient’s health status through the portal and then schedule appointments for follow-ups.

Deliver a comprehensive view

Essential for improving the patient portal in 2018 is to ensure it is capturing and delivering chart information from across the enterprise. In cases of recent mergers and acquisitions, many organizations may be supporting legacy portal platforms, which are inefficient to manage and frustrating for the patient. That’s why consolidating to a single portal is crucial.

During the portal assessment, organizations must determine if the technology can be integrated with its disparate electronic health record (EHR) systems. During the Meaningful Use implementation spree, many platforms claimed they could be integrated, but not all could keep that promise. This year is the time to hold these portal platforms accountable.

With so many competing improvement priorities, optimizing the patient portal may not be on the radar for some healthcare organizations in 2018. However, by integrating the technology across the enterprise and placing it at the center of PHM strategy, providers will find that the patient portal delivers far-reaching patient engagement and outcome benefits that align with the goals of many of their other initiatives.

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Gary Hamilton is chief executive officer of InteliChart.

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