D'Arcy Gue

Why Patient Portals Need Unique Support to Succeed

July 9, 2015

IT Service Desk, Meaningful Use / MIPS 6 Minute Read

There’s no doubt … Meaningful Use / MIPS has changed the landscape of healthcare.  One obvious example is requisite direct engagement with patients through a patient portal.  Before Meaningful Use / MIPS, the patient portal was a rare beast indeed, but now, nearly every provider has one. If you’ve supported a patient portal for long, you realize that these portals create technical support needs that are very different from the hospital IT help desk support that you are used to providing. Let’s talk about why….

As a help desk (service desk) provider for hospitals, we were not surprised to begin receiving client requests for patient portal support.   In applying our knowledge to this challenge, here’s what we’ve learned:

service desk solutions

  • PHI Protection Issues: Answering patient support questions often requires accessing, discussing, and disclosing protected health information.  Existing IT service call centers are not likely to be accustomed to the patient identification and verification processes that are essential to ensure patient privacy as required by HIPAA and other patient privacy laws.   Many outsourced service desks will not even take patient calls because of this concern. And, they shouldn’t, if they haven’t implemented thorough privacy protections in their processes.
  • Computer Literacy Variations: Patients approach their providers’ portals with a wide range of computer knowledge — from little computer literacy to strong competence.  While many callers claim that they don’t understand how to register, have forgotten (or lost) their access information, or need some guidance to perform a function, the obstacles facing them often are rooted in insufficient computer experience. As a result, the help desk representative answering portal support calls must address questions and concerns from patients that are substantially different from the calls received from hospital staff concerning EHR and other internal hospital IT issues. Calls from members of the patient community require a different, and perhaps more sensitive approach — and may take more time.
  • Widely Varying Needs: Most hospitals have one basic technical environment – everyone uses the same version of the same operating system. A patient call center must work with patients using various operating systems and devices, who present a much broader spectrum of support needs. Windows vs. IOS presents one level of challenge, but for the patient trying to use the portal to download information or copy it to a flash drive, the level of differences is even greater.
  • Non-Business Hours Calls: Patients are far more likely to call after working hours than hospital IT users, including during the weekend. Unfortunately, many existing hospital IT support operations tend to operate business hours only. Hospitals must rethink their help desk capabilities and hours of operation to address patient inquiries. If expansion of help desk access to evenings and weekends is needed, management may need to develop creative, cost-effective solutions.

Some readers may say — “We don’t get that many patient portal help desk calls.” Well, maybe not yet. We have at least one hospital client that has said this, but as a result of over-limiting the services its help desk was allowed to provide, built up an unmanageably large backlog of “second level” tickets for application managers in just a few months — and a slew of unhappy patient users. It’s also important to recognize that as your patient portal matures, the number of calls will rise. Why?

  • Portal Maturation: The longer your portal is available, the larger the number of registered users. Word of mouth and marketing will ensure this increase. It is likely that your hospital is already experiencing a gradual, if not strong increase in usage since its portal went live.
  • The Draft Stage 3 Meaningful Use / MIPS Requirements raise the bar substantially in terms of numbers of patients who must be using a hospital’s patient portal. Many hospitals will have to produce five to seven times the active users they currently have. The requirements also state that patient-generated health data or data from other non-clinical settings must be incorporated into the electronic health record for more than 15 percent of all unique patients. This will almost certainly create a high volume of patient calls for help in working with their patient portals.
  • Intervals between Portal Engagements: The patients who have been registered longer are more likely to have lost or forgotten their passwords between interactions with their portals. In addition, portals, like everything IT, will evolve and change in functionality during those intervals. Patients will need to call in for assistance.

Bottom line: patient portal service calls are unlike anything your hospital has managed before, and the number of them will certainly grow. What are your options for managing this new Meaningful Use / MIPS challenge?

  • You can make the patient portal help desk operation part of your current IT service desk. This option can work if you have evening and weekend support,  the time to develop an entirely different set of patient identification and privacy standards, and can produce new support guidelines and solutions, along with necessary training of your representatives.
  • You might direct these calls to an existing patient call center, such as the resource within your business office. Not many hospitals have such a call center open during off hours. If you do, the broad technical knowledge required to support the variety of challenges presented by the patient user base will require major changes in your call management procedures and solution offerings.
  • In theory, you could hire a dedicated representative(s) to resolve patient issues and questions about your portal. Alas, even the largest hospitals will likely not have the volume to support dedicated patient service representatives for the extended hours required, and most won’t want to shoulder the cost of creating the extra infrastructure, such as telephones, computers, and help desk software.

Commercial break:  While it is not our goal, normally, to promote our services in this blog, this time we’re making an exception. Outsourcing patient portal help desk is a new concept — and very needed. We recommend that you at least consider outsourcing your patient portal support calls to an external resource that is experienced in patient portal support. Like us. We’re already doing it.

Our service desk representatives are experienced in dealing directly with patients and the patient portal environment, including ensuring patient privacy regardless of the sensitivity of patients’ disclosures. They are well-versed in supporting a broad range of technical environments, and well-trained in technical support and in the customer service techniques needed to handle the scope of computer knowledge within patient populations.  24X7X365 — our representatives, based in Richardson, TX,  provide full support for these tricky patient portal calls as well as overall support for internal IT users – regardless of your platform.

Contact us if you simply would like to know more about the unique challenges of patient portal support, or if you are interested in discussing our services.


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