Your Guide to Software Selection

What is a Patient Portal and How Does it Help Medical Practices?

Following the introduction of electronic medical records (EMR) and electronic health records (EHR), patient portals were developed to improve the way in which patients and healthcare providers interact. A product of meaningful use requirements, they were mandated as a way to provide patients with timely access to their healthcare. Specifically, patient portals give patients access to their health information so that they can take a more active role in their health.

There are two main types of patient portals: a standalone system and an integrated service. An integrated patient portal usually comes as a part of an EMR system, an EHR system or practice management software. But at their most basic, they’re simply web-based tools.

Patient portals are mainly used to retrieve lab results, ask a question or update patient profiles and insurance providers. Some patient portals also allow patients to schedule appointments and pay bills directly through the system. For providers, they represent an opportunity to increase patient engagement, promote loyalty, manage costs and streamline workflows.

Benefits of Patient Portals

No matter the type of platform that you choose, your patient portal can provide your patients with secure online access to their medical details and increase their engagement with your practice. And that’s not to mention that it does so while providing several benefits for healthcare providers as well. Some of these benefits include:

Rapid Growth

More and more health care providers have introduced their own patient portals since the medical industry shifted focus to patient-centered care. As a result, an increasing number of patients are signing up and actively using these services. Of the 74,368 disadvantaged adult patients monitored during a two-year study conducted between April 2008 and April 2010, 16% obtained an access code to their medical providers’ portals. Among those patients, 60% activated their accounts and 49% used their accounts two or more times. Later studies show that activation and use has increased.

Increased Office Efficiency

Implementing a patient portal for your medical practice can increase efficiency in your office by making communication between you and your patients easier. As of June 2014, about 35% of family practices were using portals to educate patients, and 41% were using them for other messaging purposes. This can save time for receptionists and nurses, especially since the messages appear in real time.

Streamlined Workflow

Using a patient portal can also streamline workflows in your office. Your receptionists and nurses no longer have to deal with simple, non-urgent questions over the phone, since your office staff can move these communications online. This reserves your phone lines and your office staff’s time for dealing with more urgent healthcare needs.

Promotion of Telemedicine

Patient portals can reduce the number of unnecessary patient visits to your office, allowing you to fit in more patients who actually need to see you. This can help facilitate telemedicine, which allows patients to consult with you through the messaging system. For example, instead of a patient scheduling an appointment to see you for a change in medication doses, the patient could ask you about it over the patient portal. Using this feature allows you to keep that appointment open for a patient who either has an illness that requires a diagnosis and prescription in-person, or one who needs immediate medical care. More than 25% of family practices were using patient portals for prescription-related purposes as of June 2014.

Fewer Medical Errors

When receptionists and other staff in a medical office take phone calls, they have to relay the information that patients give them to the nurses and physicians. This sometimes leads to misinterpretations of patient needs and medical issues. Being able to receive written messages from patients allows you and your staff to correctly interpret what your patients need, so that you’re well informed and can make the appropriate decisions.

Other Benefits

In addition to the four benefits above, using a patient portal allows you to send appointment reminders or schedule yearly checkups with your patients. This reduces the chances of your patients forgetting, which maximizes your time.

Portals can also be used to provide your patients with billing information, consent forms, educational materials and test results to keep them informed on their health. Sending them educational materials and test results can save time spent explaining every little detail during an office visit. In addition, this allows you to see more patients every day. If your patients have pressing questions, they can ask for more details via the patient portal or wait until their next visit.

A Mixed Bag

Many people have used a patient portal by now, and the reviews are mixed at best. As you can see in the section above, there are plenty of benefits that patient portals provide. But unfortunately, their potential has yet to be fully harnessed.

Some patient portals are hard to access, badly designed, cumbersome to navigate and limited in utility. These downfalls make it more likely for patients to pick up the phone and call their provider for a simple issue, negating the benefits. And when it comes to your staff and physicians, subpar patient portals can take up time and resources that aren’t usually billable.

Get our Medical Practice Management Software Comparison Matrix.

Emerging Trends Impacting Patient Portal Usage

If patient portals are a mixed bag, why should the patient portal receive greater consideration in the EHR selection, EMR selection and practice management selection processes? Because when you look at current industry trends, patient portals are well on their way to improving. For example:

Value-Based Care

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 the research paper Patient portals and health apps: Pitfalls, promises, and what one might learn from the other, 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 increase information accuracy, reduce duplication and cut down on time spent on patient records, payments and prescription refills.

Data

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. This could result in better population health management, as well as 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.

Mobile Apps/mHealth

The growing use of mobile apps, smartphones and wearable devices has increased the demand for patient portals. This has increased the monitoring and uploading of information related to patient health and physical activity. In turn, this has made patients more conscience of their health, leading to more self-management and data exchange with patient portals.

How to Evaluate 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 is commonly hosted by a third-party vendor through the cloud. This approach can result in compatibility issues with your EMR and/or EHR system, requiring cooperation from the vendor(s) — often at a price.

Alternatively, you can select a patient portal as part of an EHR, EMR or practice management software. The good news is that most of these 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 quite drastically in functionality and usability. As such, you need to take into consideration:

1. Cost

What’s the cost to design and activate the portal? Do they provide training, maintenance, troubleshooting and upgrades?

2. Customization

Do you have the 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?

3. Patient Management

Does the patient portal 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 of these services, which ones are most important to you?

4. 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?

5. 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 computer screens, tablets and smartphones?

6. 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?

7. 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? Can they update their information (insurance, address changes, etc) or view discharge and medication instructions? Does it provide an online healthcare library of educational resources?

8. 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?

9. Workflow Automation

Once patient information has been reviewed and approved, can it be uploaded into your EHR, EMR or practice management system (including care plans, clinical visits, insurance coverage and billing) without extra manual work? Can this process be customized to meet your current and future requirements as procedures and policies change? Can it send alerts?

10. Yourself

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. Will you provide training for your nurses, physicians and staff? Will you actively encourage patients to use the patient portal?

It’s clear that using a patient portal can provide several benefits for your medical practice. After accounting for these 10 considerations, you should be ready to start using a patient portal. The only decision left to make is which platform you’ll actually use.

Get our Medical Practice Management Software Comparison Matrix.

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