There's no way around it. Practices have little choice but to invest in patient portals — that is, if they plan to achieve meaningful use. Attesting to the Stage 2 rules of meaningful use requires that 5 percent of your patients access your patient portal, and CMS has proposed raising that to 25 percent under Stage 3.
"There are two ways of achieving meaningful use … by trying to meet the letter of the law or the intent of the law," said Shane Pilcher, vice president at Bethel Park, Penn.-based Stoltenberg Consulting. "What that means is you can just check the box, or you can try to get to the place where you're engaging with patients in a meaningful way. The patient portal has to be more than just a place patients get their data. That information has to be in layman's terms, in plain English. Patients have to understand how this information has an important effect on their lives."
First, of course, you need to get your patients signed up to access the patient portal. Morris Stemp, CEO at Long Island City, NY-based Stemp Systems, a healthcare IT consulting firm, works with a practice that has integrated patient portal sign up as part of the patient experience. After appointments, patients can use a kiosk right there in the office to sign up. The benefit for patients is they won't have to bring home loads of papers, plus they'll have access to all of their medical information online.
Beyond providing patients with access to their medical information, patient portals should include functionality that will continue to pull them back to engage with the platform. Pilcher recommended that practices consider investing in technologies that will allow the patient portal to receive information from patients' fitness trackers. Several EHR vendors are using proxy services to gather this data from fitness trackers and then transmit it into their patient portal.
Another way to keep your patients coming back to the portal is by sending them notifications specific to their health issues, Pilcher said. For example, using the patient portal to send notifications to a 50-year-old male who smokes five packs of cigarettes a day that he should schedule a colonoscopy or a follow-up appointment can be helpful.
Also important to keep in mind, according to Pilcher, is the need to provide patients' family members with proxy access to their loved one's records via the portal — that's the case whether it's a parent who wants access to their child's records or an adult child who wants access to their elderly parent's medical information. “While this is a vital need, it’s not a simple process,” he said. “There are many statewide age-specific rights that govern what healthcare information a parent or guardian has a right to and what privacy expectations a child has.”
He recommended that practices work closely with care providers, legal counsel, and privacy officers to ensure policies allowing proxy access to patient information conform to state and federal law.
Joncé Smith, vice president of revenue management at Stoltenberg Consulting, recommended providing prices for various procedures on the patient portal, which treats patients like they're actually consumers.
"It's very important to use the patient portal as an education point for payment, times of service, and total cost," said Smith.