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How to Make the Most of Your Medical Practice's Patient Portal

How to Make the Most of Your Medical Practice's Patient Portal

With so many challenges facing practices, from declining reimbursement to reform initiatives to the meaningful use incentive program, it's understandable that many of you are hesitant to implement a patient portal. But practices that have taken the plunge say the time and money spent implementing the new technology leads to big payoffs — and quickly.

"Basically it frees my staff up so they can work on other things; so they can be more attentive to referrals, and prior authorizations, and appointments; and pretty soon we're going to engage the functionality that allows the patients to schedule some appointments online," says solo family physician Christine Smith, who recently implemented her portal. "It just kind of streamlines things so [patients] can take care of some of the more usual things on their own."

Smith, of Baton Rouge, La., estimates that about 20 percent of her patients are already using the portal, which enables them to request prescription refills, exchange secure messages with her and three staff members, view test and lab results, and more. In addition to saving her time, Smith says the portal is improving patient engagement, and helping her satisfy the meaningful use requirements for the government's EHR incentive program.

While Smith has had great success with her portal, not all practices that implement them experience such positive results. Part of the reason: Unlike many other initiatives that practices take on, such as EHR implementations or recognition as Patient-Centered Medical Homes, successful portal implementations require not only staff and physician engagement, but patient engagement. A practice might have the best portal in the world, but if its patients don't use it, it's going to be of little use.

For that reason, medical practice technology experts and consultants, as well as practice managers and physicians that have successfully implemented portals, say practices must keep patients' perspectives in mind throughout the portal selection, implementation, and marketing process. Here's more on the various considerations practices should take to ensure they are making the most of their patient portals.

Define your needs

Once your practice decides that it's time to implement a patient portal, take your time to define your portal expectations and requirements prior to shopping around, says reproductive endocrinologist and OB/GYN Robert Wah, chief medical officer at CSC, a health information technology services and solutions company. Practices that fail to define their expectations in advance often get lured in by products that look great initially, but ultimately fail to meet their needs, says Wah, who is also president of the AMA.

Some of the key features to look for in a portal include the ability to:

• Upload medication lists, problem lists, immunization lists, and lab and test results;

• Exchange secure messages with patients;

• Offer and respond to prescription refill requests;

• Provide online statements and bill pay capabilities; and

• Enable patients to request or schedule appointments.

When outlining your portal needs, consider what features will likely attract patients to the portal. The more attractive the features are to patients, the more likely they are to use it. Stephen Snyder, president of MTBC, a healthcare IT solutions provider for physician practices, which provided Smith with her patient portal, says his clients find that key patient drivers are the ability to review statements, pay balances, and schedule appointments through the portal.

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