Patient portals have the ability to greatly streamline communication and processes between your patients and practice. Some medical practices use patient portals to improve access, minimize labor costs, and initiate proactive communication. Patients can review their accounts, update demographic/profile information, and even make payments online.
“A good portal can even automate many clerical tasks, saving your practice time and money while offering greater convenience to patients,” says Carolyn St. Jean, vice president at Medical Web Technologies in Willington, CT.
But are you really using your patient portal to its fullest capacity? Below are just some ways how you can do more with your current patient portals to ensure that you and your patients are getting the most out of it.
Make it user-friendly
That goes without saying—any new technology should be user-friendly. But sometimes you can become so enamored with technology and all of its bells and whistles that you can forget that it might not be useful or even beneficial for your end user—your patient.
“Patient portals must be easy to use,” says St. Jean. “They should also be secure, HIPAA compliant, and should make information reusable, track changes for an audit trail, and information should be accessible to staff by role.”
While patient portals should benefit both the patient and the practice, St. Jean says that too many portals focus exclusively on the practice.
“Patient portals should use language that the patient understands,” she says. “To make these systems more user-friendly, thoughtful prompts including drop-down menus can make it easier for patients when entering information online. Additionally, the software should run on all major browsers to ensure it is easily accessible.”
Beth Patak, business development manager for Providence Medical Group in Dayton, OH, adds that any personal information for your patients should be easy for them to find and read in a dashboard-like format.
“However, some physicians are concerned about pushing out some results to a portal in fear that the patient will not come back to the office for follow-up visits,” she says. “My recommendation is for providers to stop being afraid that the electronic world will replace the face-to-face art of medicine.”
Technology enhances business, not replaces it, she stresses. “Physicians are still in the business of treating patients, but sometimes they have to meet patients where they are—online.”
Allow patients to check what ails them
Sure, many patients will Google certain symptoms they may have or even turn directly to a source like WebMD. Why not post some of this information on your portal? Of course, you’re not going to replace Google as an information source—but providing this information shows your patients that you care about their well-being, you’re a trustworthy source, and it also helps your patients take more accountability for their health.
Providence Medical Group implemented Athena Health electronic medical records (EMR) that include a patient portal for health information. The portal allows patients to track their own health and research symptoms, and according to Patak, “in our opinion, it is better than WebMD.”
“Our portal includes a symptom checker so patients can answer questions to determine if they need to see a physician or not,” says Patak. “Also, they can review some of their information and trend certain information such as blood pressure changes.”
Gather pre-surgical information in advance
Ron Pelletier, VP of Corporate Accounts for SourceMedical, headquartered in Birmingham, AL, says that patients appreciate and expect the convenience of being able to manage, engage, and communicate with their providers via a secure web portal.
“Take for example patients that have an upcoming surgical case,” he says. “There is an abundance of pre-surgical information that must be gathered in advance of the case. Items such as H&P, allergies, medication profiles, and basic patient data must be collected and verified.”
This traditionally requires a series of phone calls, and quite often a game of phone tag. Pre- and post-procedural information exchange and education are often labor intensive, and often provide immediate ROI when supplemented with a portal.
“With a patient portal, this information can be efficiently gathered, and can be done at a time that is convenient for the patient,” says Pelletier. “Your practice will save time and money, and your patients will value the added convenience.”
Create a virtual bedside manner
A portal should also provide some way for your patients to communicate with their doctor or staff.
“Our patient portal allows patients to communicate with the office staff through email,” says Patak. “Appointments can be set and questions can be answered, and the communication is tracked within the medical record. It is convenient, easy, and recorded for future information.”
If your practice does use a portal to allow patients to ask questions of your staff, Pelletier recommends making sure your portal is secure.
“Quite often patients will appreciate the convenience of being able to interact with their providers in a fashion that is convenient for them,” he says. “However, they should feel reassured that their information is secure and private.”
St. Jean agrees.
“Security is an area where many systems fall short,” she says. “Patient portals must be fully secure, running with complete geographic redundancy and backup to ensure the safety and availability of information.”
Since the use of the web is becoming increasingly prevalent across a wide demographic of patients, make sure your portal can be accessed across all platforms.
“The types of devices and methods for engagement are becoming more diverse, including mobile devices and tablets,” says Pelletier. “Portals should be intuitive to use, and when applicable should provide patients with easy access to educational and informative content that supports the goal of the portal.”
The portal, however, should not replace the patient visit, Patak cautions.
“Patients still need to maintain a relationship with their physician so the portal shouldn’t be the only communication,” she says. “I feel that some controls should be put on portals, for that reason.”
At Providence, Patak says that patients can communicate with the office staff but not the doctor—they can ask questions but they cannot be treated via email. In fact, they do not even have a blog because they feel that oftentimes blogs create a blurriness between the patient and physician relationship. The physician needs to see the patient be able to make assessments of their complete health.
“The true benefit of portals is to help patients become smarter consumers so portals that originate with primary care physicians are more impactful,” says Patak. “They provide more information such as a history of basic tests and results, as well as medicines and visit summaries.”