December 25, 2018
This is the first in a two-part series on how to make the most of patient portals to improve patient engagement, and simultaneously improve care management and financial outcomes. Thanks to the PolitDoc Team for their permission to publish excerpts from their recent post.
The implementation of Meaningful Use / MIPS sent providers scrambling to implement patient portals to provide patients access to their health information — AND to reap the program’s financial incentives. Unfortunately, many providers set up portals only as a compliance measure, without considering how patients and overall healthcare could benefit from them. By not applying thoughtful patient-oriented design and functionality, these providers are missing a significant opportunity to enhance patients’ experience and to improve both clinical and financial outcomes. And so only about 20 percent of patients actually use portals, Mary Pratt writes in Medical Economics, and lack of vision, poor design and insufficient functionality are big reasons. Why must this change?
“Over time, the customer is going to gravitate to providers based on convenience,” says Don Rucker, MD, national coordinator for health IT with the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health Information Technology.
A patient portal can improve communication, streamline patient registration and scheduling, and allow practitioners to focus on patient care rather than administrative minutiae, says Amy DeMarco, marketing specialist at Henry Schein MicroMD. And the convenience offered to patients through well-constructed portals with access to patient records and efficient utilities for communication and transactions cannot be overestimated. At a time when consumers can do so much online — banking, research, shopping, getting a mortgage — it’s time for providers to get onboard with equally superior tools.
To reach goals that benefit both patients and providers, however, portals must be designed with the intent to genuinely meet patients’ needs, empower them to take greater responsibility for their own health, and strengthen the patient-physician relationship. In addition, portals should become a collaborative “hub for managing patients, particularly those with chronic illnesses who need ongoing care, says David Clain, research manager at athenaResearch. “It’s not just how you get a patient to come in… but how you make sure that you see them often enough that you can really have a good handle on their health status and intervene early and often if you have to.”
What Makes A Patient Portal User-Friendly?
Patients want a portal to offer at least three primary features: online appointment scheduling, access to their personal health information, and the option to view and pay their medical bills online, says Gaby Loria, team lead at Software Advice. Increasingly, patients also want to communicate through their portals via tools such as secure messaging and notifications. As an example, according to a 2018 study by Steve Alfons van den Bulck et al in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, of 433 surveyed patients, 93.7 percent stated that a patient portal or app that could notify them when they needed to take action to protect their health would significantly improve their quality of life and allow them to assume greater responsibility for their own healthcare. More than 80 percent of respondents also were interested in features that would allow them to track their symptoms over time, understand how symptoms were related to biological factors, and find information about expected treatment effects.
A portal that allows for mobile use is also a must, says Eric Wicklund at mHealthIntelligence. To offer optimal ease of use, however, simply redesigning the existing portal for a smaller screen may not be enough. “A truly engaging mobile patient portal takes advantage of the convenience and usability of a mobile device to give patients on the go access to what they want and need,” Wicklund says. It loads quickly, is easy to read on a smartphone or tablet, and it allows patients to find answers to their questions quickly.
Issues Concerning Patient Usability, Security And Provider Benefits
Integrating the patient portal into the (provider’s) work with patients and teaching all how to use it can have a profound impact on portal adoption, says Erin Zielinski, a family practice manager in New Jersey. So can designing from the patient’s perspective, says Kevin Yamazaki, founder and CEO of Sidebench. Stepping into the patient’s shoes to ask questions like “Is the portal easy to use?” “What are the costs and benefits to me?” and “How well does my doctor’s office support my use of the portal?” can help provider organizations pinpoint which features are necessary to support patient communication — and which simply get in the way.
How do portals help enable better patient care and even improve financial outcomes?
A well-designed, properly implemented patient portal helps providers serve patient populations better and build a reputation as a business with heart. Streamlining administrative processes behind the scenes translates to better, faster service to patients. Mohan Giridharadas, founder and CEO of LeanTaaS, says that hospitals and other care providers “that are capitalizing on technology to improve their efficiency propel themselves forward both with service and reputation.” Portals should be seen as “engagement systems” designed to help patients actually own their health outcomes. In addition to offering the basics — scheduling and payment tools — patient portals should enable individuals to view their health history, monitor prescription requests and refills, view previous invoices and make payments, and access and complete intake forms before they even set foot in a clinic. These features can have a huge impact on quality of care and health outcomes for patients. The team at Politdok offers the following examples:
Let’s embrace the idea that a more direct, responsive online relationship between patient and provider holds strong positives for both. Through robust portals that work both ways, patients can more efficiently support their own healthcare and feel more in control, and feel highly connected to their providers. As patients experience more benefits, their providers will too. Engagement of both groups will evolve into efficiencies and related cost savings, fewer visits, stronger patient-provider relationships, and improved outcomes.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series next week! We will explore the particulars of effective patient portal design and configuration, and how building robust portal capabilities has transformed hospitals’ relationships with their patients, supported patient-centered outcomes, integrated well with clinical encounters, and created new efficiencies.