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Encouraging Patients to Use Online Communication


How do we motivate or encourage patients to contact our office electronically?

I saw a patient in the office today for a routine hospitalization follow up. She lives about 1 ½ hours away from the office but has several family members nearby and chooses to maintain her medical home at our office. She politely voiced her frustration with not being able to reach someone by phone to confirm her appointment for that day. As I looked at her chart and apologized for her difficulty in contacting our office, I noted that she had online portal access. I then asked my patient if she had tried to contact us online and she said “no.”

In busy medical practices, we all face similar situations each day. For my office, there are times that if I had 20 incoming phone lines the probability of someone having their phone call successfully answered would be very low at peak call times. In the late morning or late afternoon, all the phone lines are silent and the activity level is very low. How do we as physicians appropriately maintain adequate access to our office for patients attempting to contact us?

The answer for that question can be found with the online connectivity that my EHR offers via the online patient portal. During a recent survey of my active patients, I was able to note that approximately 35 percent to 40 percent of them have a portal account. For my practice location in southwestern Virginia, this is a strikingly high percentage of patients that have portal access. When patients choose to use the portal, they do inform us that they are very pleased with the ease of communication and the rapid response times that my staff is able to answer their questions.

With such a robust method of communication available to my patients, the question is then asked. How do we motivate or encourage patients to contact our office electronically? Many of them phone us from their homes. Those same patients have broadband Internet connections and could easily contact us via the portal. Is it the convenience of picking up the phone that is too tempting to pass up? Is it the inconvenience of sitting down at their computer and logging in to the portal that they do not care for? I have asked myself this same question over and over time and time again. As I spoke with my Dell account representative the other day and reviewed options for replacing my fleet of desktop computers in my office, the answer was then very apparent. I need to motivate my patients properly to use the portal.

I placed an order electronically to replace eight of our office's desktop computers. The old ones are very nice machines and could very easily be installed in someone's home as a viable option for surfing the Web, word processing, sending e-mails, etc. My new idea for encouraging patients to sign up for portal access is to offer the aging desktop computers to them in a contest method. I decided that I would post on our website a notification to our patients that those patients with active portal accounts would be entered into a drawing to win a desktop computer. Further, I will also offer a desktop computer in a drawing for patients who sign up for new portal accounts. The third option is to make another desktop available in a drawing for those patients who utilize the portal on a routine basis. This seems to be a very simple solution and once the contest is made available to my patients, I will be pleased to share my experiences to our readers.

Successful patient communication with the medical practice is absolutely essential to the doctor-patient relationship. While my utopian practice will one day have one phone line for incoming and outgoing phone calls with the balance of patient communication being handled electronically, I can only hope that I can urge my patients to move toward the electronic communication format without any implementation difficulties. Electronic communication is very efficient. Most EHRs are able to save the communication in a folder in the patient chart thereby allowing office-to-patient communications to be precisely documented for review at a later date if needed. Until the ideal communication system can be achieved, I will continue to encourage my patients to take an extra minute and simply log on and send us a message or make their own appointment electronically. Once the efficiency of this communication portal is truly appreciated, then and only then will the utopian practice emerge. For our readers that wish to get more information regarding the system I use, please feel free to e-mail me and I am delighted to provide my input.

Find out more about J. Scott Litton and our other Practice Notes bloggers.

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