Five Ways to Get More Out of Your Patient Portal

February 19, 2015

As portals become more common, physicians should find ways to maximize their value and encourage patient use. Here are five ideas.

In order to qualify for Stage 2 of the government's EHR incentive program, physicians and hospitals are required to have at least 5 percent of their patients accessing their medical records online. Many will accomplish this requirement through patient portals.

A patient portal is an innovative asset to any practice. It’s an efficient way to provide secure online access to patient health records, as well as to interact and follow up with patients, set appointments, and deliver lab results.

Patient portals can save practices significant time and money. They’re also great for patients since they facilitate online appointment check in, bill paying, submission of routine questions, and prescription refill requests. However, despite patient demand for online access to their health records, many physicians have experienced difficulties in getting patients to actually adopt and use the portals.

Patients are Often Unaware of Patient Portals
The problem is often a lack of awareness. A recent survey by Technology Advice shows that many patients simply do not know whether their physician even offers a patient portal. The survey also revealed that while patients of all ages prefer to be contacted and to receive lab results through a phone call, younger people are more likely than older to schedule appointments online.

A surprising insight was that nearly half (48 percent) of physicians did not follow up with patients after a visit; of those who did, a phone call was more common than an online portal (23 percent vs. 9 percent).

Physicians could be missing opportunities to better engage patients and meet the requirements for meaningful use. Educating patients takes some time and effort, but can really pay off with increased awareness and patient portal use.

Five Ways to Maximize Your Patient Portal
As portals become more common, physicians should find ways to maximize their value and encourage patients to embrace it. Here are five ideas to make a patient portal more useful.

1. Create a comprehensive symptom survey. A detailed symptom survey can provide physicians with a snapshot about a patient’s most pressing health concerns, from neurological issues and weight gain to sensitive issues, such as depression. Putting a survey online offers benefits, such as a greater degree of comfort. Patients often prefer to complete these surveys on their own time, in familiar surroundings, rather than in a waiting room. Patients will also feel more inclined to divulge important health information that they would deem to be otherwise too embarrassing or unimportant to include in a paper form.

2. Allow for post-treatment feedback. Encouraging feedback after treatment gives patients the feeling that the patient portal is set up for their benefit. Simple, customized surveys can gather “yes,” “no,” and more detailed answers to questions about improvements and progress (or declines) in a patient’s condition. Patients who have undergone invasive procedures can express their satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with the results of the surgery, and all patients can share their feelings about their overall experience.

3. Curb patient anxiety. Most patients prefer to receive lab and test results through phone calls. However, the ability to review them later through the patient portal can be reassuring. Patients can set aside their emotions, take all the time needed to read through their results, ensure they correctly heard the details, and process the information.

4. Engage your vendor.Most EHR vendors are well versed in patient engagement. Consider each vendor or potential vendor to be a valuable partner; its job is to help practices and patients get the most out of the entire EHR system, including the patient portal.

5. Invest in educating patients. Introduce patients and family members to the portal while they are still in the office. Designate a patient educator: a knowledgeable staff member who can assist in setting up accounts, logging in, and navigating through the features. When patients are comfortable accessing the portal in your office, they’re much more likely to continue using it on their own.

Patient Portals Will Become Routine
Technology has made it easier for consumers to do their shopping, banking, and social networking online. But there is still a user gap when it comes to accessing patient information from hospitals and physicians.

Much like consumer demand led to the rise in e-commerce, patient demand can inspire more physicians to offer online patient portals and get engaged in eHealth. Getting patients to use them will require efforts to provide value and educate patients, but as their use spreads, patient portals will become routine for every healthy lifestyle.

Ron Vatalaro is a writer at Bisk Education with the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and writes about health informatics. Ron holds an advanced degree in business administration with a concentration in technology.