When is the Right Time to Introduce a Patient Portal at Your Practice?

June 21, 2014
David Doyle

A patient portal expert answers this common question voiced by medical practices, and three others about portal implementation and use.

A 2012 study conducted by Accenture found that 90 percent of patients want to access their medical information online, but 46 percent don’t know if they’re able to do so. Many healthcare providers are now using patient portals to move patient communication online without compromising patient privacy or care.

Here are answers to some of the common questions voice by practices that have not yet introduced or implemented a patient portal:

How are patient portals currently being used in practices?

They are used by both patients and physicians. Patients can perform a number of tasks related to self-managing their healthcare, but the full range of options depends on the specific portal that a practice adopts. Generally, portals allow patients to request appointments and prescriptions/referrals; view and pay their medical bills; view lab and test results from recent visits; ask physicians general or personal health questions without going in for an exam; and update their records with current health conditions and medications.

Portals also enable physicians to respond to inquiries more quickly. DoctorBase CMO Zachary Landman, for instance, implemented patient portals in 12,000 practices and, after integrating the system into the daily work flow at the practices, physicians’ patient response time dropped from 12 to 14 hours to just two hours.

Can patient portals improve overall patient care?

A 2013 study appearing in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association shares the results of a review of 32 evaluation studies of patient portals, dating back to 2003. It concludes that the use of most patient portals led to improvements in clinical outcomes, patient behavior, and experiences. Researchers evaluated 18 randomized clinical trials and saw positive effects in 15 of them, with no serious adverse consequences from patient portal implementation.

Do patient demographics play a role in determining how quickly you should introduce a patient portal into your practice?

Not necessarily. For example, Kaiser Permanente’s portal, My Health Manager, has 3 million members. While the age range of its users is 13 to 95, most fall between the ages of 40 and 60. Roughly 60 percent of the members are female, almost half of all enrollees don’t have a college degree, and half have annual incomes under $75,000.

Another patient portal called PatientSite, which is used at a Boston teaching hospital, found that its enrollees were more likely than non-enrollees to be white and less likely to be on Medicare or Medicaid. And most of the users of myGeisinger, the patient portal for Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania, could be categorized into one of three groups: young parents, family members caring for elderly parents, and patients with chronic illnesses.

While younger patients are more likely to register for a patient portal, elderly patients are not averse to using this type of resource once they understand the benefits of doing so. And neither are patients with lower incomes or less education.

When is the right time to implement a portal?

The largest determining factor in ensuring patient usage is the reliability of physician communication. Physicians who don’t buy in to the need for a new patient portal probably won’t see the need to make any changes in the speed or quality of their patient communications either, which will likely cause their patients to stop using the portal altogether. Therefore, it’s important that practice managers ensure physician engagement.

To increase physician engagement, get them involved when you’re evaluating potential vendors - just to make sure the doctors feel comfortable using the chosen portal. Consider offering incentives for those physicians who devote time each day to check for patient messages in the portal.

Practices with stubborn physicians who refuse to use the portal can instead direct their portal communications to other members of the staff. Staff members can then sit down with these physicians at a set time each day to address any patient messages and input a response on the physicians’ behalf.

In short, the best time to introduce a patient portal to your practice is after you’ve put a system in place to ensure physician engagement.