Getting patients to adopt a patient portal or personal health record (PHR) can be a perplexing challenge for medical practices. On paper, there is overwhelming patient demand for the technology. Today, more than 90 percent of patients report wanting access to their health information online. With this level of interest, patient portals should practically sell themselves to patients. Yet, the reality for most practices is that getting patients to actually adopt and use the technology meaningfully takes planning and work. In our experience, "if you build it, they will come" is wishful thinking when it comes to implementing a patient portal.
To better understand the pitfalls of patient portal/PHR adoption, our company recently shadowed a number of small medical practices to observe the challenges they faced when rolling out a patient portal, and also to see what worked well and what didn’t in terms of marketing them to patients.
Your practice stands to gain a great deal from implementing a portal. Simply put: time and money. Patient portals can take a significant burden off of your practice by putting the power of self-service into the hands of patients. Patients can do all of the following through a patient portal: managing appointments and checking in at the medical office, paying bills, requesting prescriptions, accessing medical records, and getting routine questions answered. By empowering patients, portals can help you run your medical office much more efficiently, and even improve the profitability of patient encounters. Finally, if your practice is on the path of adopting an EHR and attesting to meaningful use, you may already know that the Stage 2 rules require providers to demonstrate that patients have the ability to view online, download, and transmit their health information.
So, if you haven’t already, now is a good time to get started with a patient portal. Here are five tips that your practice should keep in mind when implementing a new portal.
• How you talk about and "sell" your portal to patients is critical. If someone told you that you were going to be given more responsibility or had to manage something that was previously done for you, how would you react? Your first instinct would likely be resistance or avoidance. The same goes for patients when they are presented with a patient portal.
If the message patients receive is that they are now responsible for managing their own health, don’t expect a glowing response. Patients are consumers of your portal and, like any consumer, they are interested in tools that are going to make their lives easier, not more complicated. When you talk about the portal to patients, it’s critical to explain how it directly benefits them—in terms they care about. In our experience, the most successful practices we’ve observed spend time developing an "elevator pitch", presenting in 30 seconds or less how a portal will benefit the patient (e.g., ability to request prescription refills online, real-time access to medical records, secure patient-provider communication, online bill payment and scheduling, etc.).
• Imagine your office as a patient portal retail center. Once you have mastered your elevator pitch explaining how a portal can improve the lives of your patients, the next step is to make this information available from as many "touch points" as possible inside your office. Those with the highest adoption rates aggressively market their patient portals using brochures, posters, mailing inserts, telephone calls, and other informational materials. Some practices have gone as far as offering promotional gift cards for the first group of patients who adopt the new technology. Your goal should be to create an office environment that lends itself to generating awareness of the portal and its benefits. This is especially critical considering that research from Accenture finds that, while a majority of patients want access to their health information electronically, nearly half aren’t aware if their information is actually available online.
• Think mobile, digital. According to a Pew Research Center survey, today nearly 20 percent of smartphone owners have downloaded an app to track and manage their health. As you evaluate a patient portal for your practice, having the ability to offer patients a mobile version can be a very attractive selling point. It also creates an opportunity for your patients to have more intimate interactions and become accustomed to regularly using the technology. In addition, you also want to consider other opportunities to initiate digital interactions with your portal. For example, when a patient schedules an appointment, some offices we’ve observed send an e-mail confirmation to patients with a link to their portal, encouraging them to begin accessing PHR. If your practice has a website, ensuring that your portal is well-integrated is also important considering that a vast majority of Internet users now search for health information and resources online.
• Your staff are your greatest asset. As you roll out your patient portal, one of the most important investments you can make is to train your staff to be able to knowledgably talk about the system with patients and explain the benefits. When initiated proactively during patient visits and over the phone, these conversations can have a dramatic impact on how quickly your patients adopt your portal.
• Put your vendor to the test. Remember that your vendor should be your partner on this journey. In fact, many have materials available to help you market the technology to your patient community. If you haven’t already, reach out to them for support. Likewise, if you haven’t committed to a patient portal vendor yet, make sure that they can spell out how they can help you get your patients to use the technology. If they don’t have a clear answer, that should raise a red flag. Also, make certain that their portal system will be fully integrated with your EHR solution.
From our experience shadowing medical practices, we’ve discovered that there is not a hidden secret to getting patients to adopt patient portal technology. The reality is that implementing a portal is a proactive endeavor that requires rolling up one’s sleeves. However, by following these tips, your practice stands to have a much more successful experience getting patients to adopt the technology, improve health outcomes, and save your practice time and money in the process.
Stephen Snyder is president at MTBC, a provider of integrated practice management, revenue cycle management, and proprietary electronic health record software solutions to private physician offices and hospital-employed provider groups throughout the United States. E-mail him here.