What Makes a Great Patient Portal: One Patient’s Perspective

September 15, 2011

Patient portals are a great way to send and receive secure electronic messages and so much more. So why aren’t more practices and patients using them?

Those of us in the business of health journalism can tell you patient portals have gained a lot of ground this year. 

According to our most recent technology survey, conducted in the first quarter of 2011, 25 percent of hospital-owned practices and 17 percent of independent practices use interactive patient portals. And it’s easy to see why. For starters, they’re a more secure way of communicating. Unlike traditional e-mail, which if not encrypted could put a physician in hot water for violating HIPAA, patient portals are hubs that are accessed away from insecure e-mail inboxes. There are other benefits, too: Portals allow practices to do everything from bill patients to route prescription-refill requests.

So why aren’t even more practices and more patients using them?

For patients like me, the answer is that they seem to be more trouble than they’re worth.

With my Gmail account, I can log in with my e-mail address and password to check my messages via phone or laptop. But accessing portal-based e-mail messages requires yet another step.

The first time I encountered a doctor’s office with a patient portal was back in February. My physician sent an e-mail message to my Gmail account with a numbered instruction list on the five steps I needed to take to access a note from my doctor. First, I needed to go to her practice’s website, search for a link at the top of the page, click on the link, and then register a username separate from my e-mail address, as well as a password. And then when I finally did get into the portal to access my message, it was tiny. Looked kind of primitive compared with my super-graphical Gmail messages.

In essence, the process of retrieving the message wasn’t simple and intuitive enough to make me a believer.

But my attitude completely changed just one week ago when a patient coordinator at another doctor’s office, after calling to follow up with me, asked me if I wanted to sign up for communication via the practice’s e-mail portal. When I grudgingly agreed, she assured me that accessing my e-mail through the portal would be simple.

Sure enough, she was correct. Shortly after hanging up, I got an e-mail from the practice, inside which was a little envelope icon. I clicked on it, and came to a screen with two prompts: One to put in my e-mail address, which would become my username, and another to add a password. I picked a basic password with numbers and letters, and voila! I got right into my inbox. Inside the inbox, two large-screen messages were waiting for me. I was in heaven!

In the last week, this practice’s nurse and patient coordinator have been able to send me detailed e-mail messages that I can access in a secure fashion. For me, this is great. I don’t have to step outside of my cubicle into the hallway, whispering, to discuss issues that can be addressed in writing. Of course, sending a portal-based e-mail isn’t always superior to using the phone or making an in-person visit. But it sure makes asking follow-up questions (for example, whether I can take Advil while I’m being treated for another condition) easier.

So if you’re a physician, think about your patients. Ask yourself, ‘will they like this?’ ‘Is it easy to use or too cumbersome?’ ‘Will the e-mails the patients receive be easy to read?’

There are other considerations, too, such as a vendor’s credibility and the portal’s secure technology. But once all of those checklist items are addressed, the process of picking the perfect portal should be pretty simple.