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What to Consider Before Implementing a Patient Portal

By Patricia Chaney August 14, 2015 Posted in: Patient Care , Article

As electronic health records (EHRs) are adopted across more health care facilities, the next step is providing widespread patient access to the information. Patient portals offer secure online access to personal health information and allow patients to broaden their interaction with your practice's physicians.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services encourage this involvement as part of their EHR Incentive Programs. Stage 2 requires that a certain percentage of patients have online access to their health information.

This initiative sounds good in theory, but what should the patient portal offer? What's involved in implementing it, and most importantly, will patients use it?

What Can Patient Portals Do?

You have a couple of options with patient portals and the range of services they offer. Some types come as an application that's part of an EMR package and links to the patient's record within that software. Physicians involved in health information exchanges (HIE) may have HIE-sponsored portals that pull patient information from multiple EMRs.

Most patient portals offer access to basic health information such as:

  • Medication lists.
  • Allergies.
  • Lab results.
  • Immunizations.
  • Discharge summaries.
  • Summaries of recent doctor visits.

In addition, some portals allow further interaction with the practice and physicians by allowing patients to:

  • Send secure messages to the health care team.
  • Request prescription refills.
  • Schedule appointments.
  • Pay bills.
  • Download forms.
  • View patient education materials.

What Are the Benefits of a Patient Portal?

The portal's goal is to improve patient engagement, build trust, and eventually improve outcomes. This fits within the industry framework of patient- and family-centered care.

The potential benefits of adopting patient portals include:

  • Staff spend less time trying to reach patients to share test results.
  • Patients can send messages directly to their provider, reducing the chances of miscommunication.
  • Patients can look for inaccurate information in their records.
  • Staff spend less time spent answering and routing incoming calls for nonemergency health questions, records requests, and refills.
  • Patients have faster access to their test results.
  • Patients can more easily keep track of their medical information.

What Does Implementation Involve?

As with any other technology you've implemented lately, offering a patient portal requires time, research, IT support, education, and workflow changes. Before choosing to implement a patient portal, it's best to talk to or poll your patients on whether it's something they want and which features they'd most like to see. They may be interested in accessing test results and online bill paying, but less so in other features. You want to be sure your patients will adopt the portal before investing in one.

How Do I Choose a Portal?

If you don't have access to a patient portal from your EHR, you'll need to evaluate the offerings from each vendor. Here are a few things to look for:

  • HIPAA compliancy.
  • Two-way secure messaging.
  • Compatibility with your existing system.
  • The features your patients want.
  • Mobile-device compatibility.

Follow procedures you've used in the past for implementing EMRs or other technology. Offer appropriate staff education for using the portal and for explaining to patients how to use it. Assign responsibilities for answering or routing emails and other requests.

Although the process will be time-intensive at first, the hope is that patient portals will save time compared to the old days of making phone calls. In addition, the portal should help boost your patients' trust.

Will My Patients Use It?

The goals of a patient portal sound great when they work out well. However, the top concern for any practice is whether your patients will adopt the new technology. Polls have shown that patients want online tools to make appointments, access their health information, and communicate with their doctors.

Despite this desire, using an online portal means setting up yet another username and password and learning another online tool. They have to feel that it's worth it. To get your patients to use the portal, make sure you involve marketing and education in your implementation. Your patients need to know the tool exists, understand what it can do, and learn how to use it.

Patient portals hold a lot of promise for improving relationships and interaction. They can also help your patients be better informed and more engaged in their care -- as long as everyone is equally willing to adopt the technology.

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