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Patient Portals Are a Gateway to Engagement


A medical practice without a patient portal? Sounds like a sure-fire way to come up short in meeting patient expectations.

doctor and patients with ipad

A medical practice without a patient portal? Sounds like a sure-fire way to come up short in meeting patient expectations. According to Tonya Edwards, MD, physician advisor with Impact Advisors, a healthcare IT consulting firm, patient portals are critical.

“We’ve moved into an age of consumerism in healthcare that is unprecedented,” Edwards says. “Patients want to be able to access their physicians in different ways than they have in the past, because that’s exactly what they’re used to with every other venue, whether it’s banking or shopping. And I don’t see that slowing down.”

But the key for medical practices, Edwards stresses, is not just having a patient portal, but what is the functionality of that portal that’s key.

Patient frustration

While patient portals are growing in popularity, a recent survey of more than 1,500 patients by practice management review group Software Advice found that nearly one-third of respondents had access to a patient portal. The problem is the frustrations that accompany that access.

The survey found that 34% of respondents indicated unresponsive staff as a major frustration with their patient portal. Another 33% cited confusing interface.

“Patients definitely want to be able to pay their bills online,” Edwards says. “They’re doing that in every other venue. But a lot of medical groups and practices that do have a patient portal don’t allow patients to pay their bill online.”

In addition, Edwards explains that patients want to be able to message their providers rather than placing a telephone call. Generally, providers have rules about when a telephone call has to be returned. For example, if the telephone call is received in the morning, many practices have rules that the call needs to be answered by noon the same day. But those same rules or standards don’t exist where patients’ electronic messages are concerned. Instead, a practice may have established rules that the message has to be returned within 48 hours. Patients, on the other hand, want to be able to message their physician while sitting at their desk and receive a timely response.

“I think it’s a very fair desire on the part of patients,” Edwards says. “And honestly, whether it’s fair or not, it’s what patients want.

What patients want

Edwards says that when patient portals are used correctly, they not only address patient desires, they are far more convenient for medical practice staff. Games of phone tag are virtually eliminated when patients receive the same level of response to an electronic communication as they do to a verbal communication.

So, how can you ensure your patient portal is meeting patient needs? Edwards says it’s best to start with patient focus groups, seeking information about what services patients want most. Also, make certain your practice’s technological infrastructure will be able to support the system you put in place.

“Make sure that the information being displayed in a summary to patients has pertinent information, in patient-friendly language,” Edwards says. “Then, try to really prioritize implementation based on what the patients’ needs and desires are. For instance, one of the things that we’re very slow about is direct patient scheduling. And that’s something that patients definitely want to have. They don’t want to phone and wait on hold for someone to schedule them. They want to go in and book their own appointment.”

Edwards explains that the reason a medical practice implements a patient portal is to improve patient engagement. And the reason to improve patient engagement is to improve quality of care and patient satisfaction. So, how do you go about engaging patients?

Start with informative marketing materials that can be distributed to patients. Physicians and office staff, especially the front desk at the time of check in or check out, should engage patients in the use of the portal. And the best way to begin that engagement, Edwards says, is by using the portal to provide lab results.

“We found that lab results in particular are a great tool to get patients signed up for the patient portal,” she says. “And then once they’re using that, and referencing the patient information materials related to those labs within the patient portal, they become more used to it.”

The bottom line

An effective patient portal enables medical practice staff to be more productive, such as not wasting time trying to reach patients during return phone calls.

“It costs very little to send electronic lab results as opposed to sending a letter,” Edwards says. “And it’s valuable to allow patients to pay their bills electronically. It’s faster and more convenient for the patient, and the practice gets paid faster than by sending out multiple bills and waiting for payment in the mail.”

Effective implementation is the key, Edwards says.

“If you don’t do it well, then you take many steps backwards rather than the steps forward you ought to be taking.”

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