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Is Your Practice Fully Engaged With Its Patient Portal?


A patient portal can reduce the time your staff spends on administrative tasks and remind patients that you care enough to provide prompt service.

What does the Internet mean for your practice? It should mean a great opportunity. A well-planned practice website that also includes a secure patient portal can reduce the time your staff spends on the phone, improve communication between physicians and patients, provide patient educational materials, and remind patients that you care enough to provide prompt access to providers and staff. This means increased efficiency and reduced costs for your practice, and ultimately better patient care.

A Harris Interactive poll tells us that almost 80 percent of patients have access to the Internet. In the same poll, 55 percent of those patients who use the Internet said the ability to communicate with their doctors via the Internet would positively influence their choice of health plans.

So knowing that patients are asking for greater access to your practice through the Internet, where are the opportunities to maximize patient care and provide excellent customer service? Here are a few functions that are tailor-made for a patient portal:

1. Patient appointment scheduling. It saves time to make appointments online instead of via the telephone. Plus, it can give patients a feeling of control to be able to pick from several choices instead of being given limited options over the phone. Posters and postcards in your office will promote this service, but you'll also want your front-desk staff, your check-out staff, and especially your nursing staff to introduce the service to patients so they are encouraged to get online.

Add in a document that allows your patient to complete the practice registration before arriving at the office, and you'll find that the information is more accurate and complete. With patient registration information in hand prior to the visit, staff can validate insurance coverage and make informed requests for copayments. Develop and train your telephone staff to offer patients the option to register online prior to coming into the practice for their appointment. Show staff how much time this will save them and they will eagerly embrace this new technology.

2. Billing and online payments. Online bill paying services are predominantly safe and easy to use. Implementing a quick and easy pay-online service through your practice portal will focus your patients' visits on their clinical issues instead of their financial balances. Automatic transfer or download of payment data to your patient accounting group increases accuracy and saves staff time with reduced paper processing. Meet with your billing manager to discuss getting started and how to implement the service so that every patient is aware of the availability. Ask your vendor to train a billing staff member on how to reconcile the automatically deposited payments and you'll reduce the uncertainty the staff will have about the new processes.

3. Communication. Messaging systems through your portal can improve secure communication among colleagues within the practice. Messaging systems also save time as physicians and nurses can answer patient questions electronically, at their convenience, instead of playing phone tag with the patient. Automated messaging systems can also allow lab results to be delivered securely to patients, with an explanation of the results, in a timely manner. Patient satisfaction scores soar after practices implement automated test-result e-delivery.

4. Decision-making. Patients need time to understand a new diagnosis or to learn how to care for themselves. Often, the shock of a new diagnosis can leave patients not understanding or remembering everything a clinician has told them. What does this mean for your practice? Usually, a stop in the hall or a phone call after the patient has left. Your practice's portal can be instrumental in informing your patients about a newly-diagnosed condition, helping them to understand their options prior to making a major health choice, and building on self-care knowledge for people with chronic conditions. Develop your telephone support staff so they are able to walk the patient or family member through your website to those resources that can be most helpful to them.

A practice website and accompanying patient portal is an easy way to show your patients what services your practice provides. If they already trust your doctors for their primary care, for example, why wouldn't they want to come to the same facility for an ancillary or elective service? Shouldn't your practice be your patient's medical home for all their healthcare information? Give patients the services they want and you'll reap the benefits in customer loyalty, increased practice efficiency, and reduced costs.

Rosemarie Nelson is a principal with the MGMA healthcare consulting group. She conducts educational seminars and provides keynote speeches on a variety of healthcare-technology and operational topics. Drawing upon her diverse experience, Nelson provides practical solutions to help medical groups succeed in their practices. She may be reached at www.mgma.com/consulting/nelson.

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