June 20, 2016
Let’s face it, for providers, the Meaningful Use / MIPS (MU) stage 2 requirements related to patient portals are not exactly onerous.
With minor variations, providers are required to make health information available to half their patients within four days of a visit, and either one patient (2015 – 2016 reporting period) or more than five percent of patients (2017 reporting) need to view, download or transmit that information to a third party.
But this is just the foundation for more extensive electronic communications between patient and provider—a tiny seedling that will hopefully blossom into a collaborative relationship. Right? So, what functionalities should patient portal tools have beyond these federal stipulations?
Perhaps the best approach for many care provider organizations is to follow a progressive strategy, starting with some basics and moving toward a robust tool that enhances the patient/provider relationship.
The Starter Set
According to polling data, patients want to schedule appointments, pay bills and view records online, and most providers don’t offer this trifecta. Meaningful Use / MIPS requires exactly one of those functions, leaving a gap for healthcare IT vendors to make up. In addition to MU prerequisites, it makes sense to start with these three basic capabilities because they’re relatively easy to install and attractive to patients.
Beyond these three functions, it’s essential to look at portals from other functional perspectives as well as overall usability. Sure, you could build a portal that allows patients to view every data nugget in their record, but it won’t matter much if the tool is clumsy and ugly.
Core Functional Capabilities
Capterra, an organization that identifies ideal software solutions for specific business needs, talked to actual users (patients, in this case) to determine what’s optimal in the patient portal experience. Capterra has identified some core functional characteristics that the best solutions share.
Some portals offer functionalities that just need to be “turned on;” others don’t and may require further IT development and customization. Either way, it’s clear that healthcare consumer online tools should approximate the experience of accessing other types of services. Yes, healthcare is different, but patients are also consumers who will shop for providers with modern electronic tools if their frustration exceeds a certain threshold.
Patient-centered Use and Clinical Encounter Integration
Beyond offering basic engagement and usability features that apply to every electronic tool these days, the best patient portals also support patient-centered outcomes and integrate with clinical encounters. Getting to that level of patient portal use will likely be an evolving process among physicians, patients and IT, not an immediate product of portal implementation.
Now 10 years into patient portal use and integration, four Kaiser Permanente physicians recently shared their experiences and lessons learned in a Health Affairs Blog post. Compellingly, the doctors credit their patient portal for specific, measurable benefits and illuminating data:
Hopefully, the experience of forward-thinking providers will clarify what functions to look for in selecting and managing a patient portal. But the lessons offered by organizations like Kaiser and Capterra can’t simplify what are probably the two most challenging parts of patient portal implementation—overcoming physicians’ frustrations with answering emails on top of their clinical workload and convincing patients to regularly use the tool.
So let’s face the challenges and take them one at a time. Let’s embrace the idea that a more direct, responsive online relationship between patient and provider holds strong positives for both. Through robust portals, patients can more efficiently support their own healthcare and feel more in control. As patients experience more benefit, their providers will too. Engagement of both groups will evolve into time savings (and cost savings for providers), fewer visits, stronger patient-provider relationships, and improved outcomes. We’re only seeing the first ripples of this evolution now, but early signs suggest a significant wave is approaching.