It’s time to revisit the much undervalued, if much maligned, patient portal. To date, patient portals remain an underutilized resource. But a convergence of trends may change your thinking about their value — especially when selecting or upgrading EHR software. To help with that process, we offer a 10-point checklist for evaluating a patient portal’s usability and functionality.
Patient Portals: A Mixed Bag
Most of us have used a patient portal, and the reviews are mixed at best. A product of meaningful use requirements, they were mandated as a way to provide patients with timely access to their healthcare.
At their most basic, they’re used to retrieve lab results, ask a question or update patient profiles and insurance providers. Some allow patients to schedule appointments and pay bills. For providers, they represent an opportunity to increase patient engagement, promote loyalty, manage costs and streamline workflows.
In reality, their potential has yet to be harnessed. Hard to access, patient portals are often badly designed, cumbersome to navigate and limited in utility. It’s sometimes easier for patients to pick up the phone and call their provider than to look up their user name or create a new password. For staff and physicians, they require time and resources that aren’t usually billable.
Emerging Trends Impacting Patient Portal Usage and Importance
So beyond next-stage meaningful use requirements, why should the patient portal receive greater consideration in the EHR selection process?
First and foremost, as healthcare moves from fee-for-service to value-based care, providers will have further incentive to improve the patient experience, track compliance and manage costs.
In a medical research paper — Patient portals and health apps: Pitfalls, promises, and what one might learn from the other — issued last year, the authors asserted that “the push for reimbursement that relates to value-based care creates an opportunity to develop high-quality patient portals.”
In addition to improving patient health and facilitating wellness, patient portals have the potential to free up staff time, lower call volume (including call backs and phone tag), increase accuracy, reduce duplication and cut down on time spent on patient records, payments and prescription refills.
The future of health and medicine points to the primacy of data. Patient portals can yield a trove of information not captured in a doctor’s visit or clinical interaction — resulting in better population health management and a better ability to track patient engagement and improve adherence to treatment plans.
Patient as Consumer
Patient portals will grow in popularity as patients evolve into healthcare consumers. Increasingly, they want better, faster access to their health information, and to be involved in the medical decision-making process. Patient portals are a natural extension of the trend to go online to select a provider or research medical conditions and treatments. They’re going to expect a positive user experience, rewarding those who do with their loyalty.
The growing use of mobile apps, smartphones and wearable devices to monitor and upload information about their health and physical activity facilitates more patient self-management and data exchange with their patient portal.
10 Point EHR Checklist for Evaluating Patient Portal Usability
Given the patient portal’s potential and growing importance, how should you evaluate the best portal for your practice or facility?
As a healthcare provider, you can select a standalone patient portal that oftentimes is hosted by a third-party vendor. This approach can result in compatibility issues with your EHR system, requiring your EHR vendor’s cooperation — often at a price.
Alternatively, you can select a patient portal as part of an EHR bundle of services. The good news is that most EHR systems provide a patient portal component. When evaluating their product, you need to remember that patient portals are not all created equal, and can vary in functionality and usability. As such, you need to take into consideration:
- Cost – What is the cost to design and activate the portal? Do they provide training, maintenance, troubleshooting and upgrades?
- Customization – Do you have flexibility to customize the interface to take into account your practice, specialty and patient profile? Is it white-labeled to allow for branding? Do providers have the ability to make refinements?
- Patient Management – Does it provide the ability to refill prescriptions, monitor compliance, track patient progress, schedule/cancel appointments, pay bills, upload documents and download practice forms? If they don’t provide all these services, which ones are most important to you?
- Communication – How easy is it for patients to send and receive emails and messages? Can patients upload documents? And does it easily and securely integrate with mobile health apps, in a format that providers can use?
- Patient Access – How complicated is it for patients to set up an account? Is it a multi-step process? Does it incorporate “responsive design” so that it’s accessible and easily readable on a computer screen, mobile device and a smartphone?
- Usability and Navigation – Is the user experience intuitive, consumer-friendly and easy to navigate? Does the portal present information such as test results in a way that patients can understand and interpret? Can it account for sight-impaired patients and patients who don’t speak English?
- Content – Can patients view laboratory results and track immunizations, medications and allergies? Can they access personal health data, notes from physicians and medical histories? Can they renew medications; update their information (insurance, address changes, etc); view discharge and medication instructions; and access an online healthcare library of educational resources?
- Security – Is the site HIPAA-compliant to ensure privacy? How secure is the connection in protecting stored data and guarding against data breaches? Does it meet confidentiality and legal requirements for minors? What is the process for setting and resetting passwords?
- Workflow automation – Once patient information has been reviewed and approved, can it be uploaded into your EHR (including care plans, clinical visits, insurance coverage, billing) without additional keying or extra work that can result in errors? Can this process be customized to meet your current and future requirements as procedures and policies change? Can it send alerts?
- You: The patient portal is evolving, gaining wider acceptance and growing in importance. Not every EHR can address all of these considerations in a manner that meets your needs. Its components are only part of the equation. The other part is you and your commitment.
For starters, do you have a physician champion or super-user who’ll advocate for your patient portal? Can you ensure that staff are properly trained, and that it’s maintained and regularly upgraded? Are you willing to commit the resources to ensure it’s routinely monitored and being used properly? Do you have the resources to create awareness and educate patients on how to use and maximize its benefits? And do your internal policies and procedures encourage usage?
Ultimately, you can’t guarantee patient compliance or participation. However, you can select a portal that helps you achieve your business goals and meets your patients’ needs.