Care providers seeking to grow their businesses must constantly strive to find better ways to connect with patients. One way to do that is via the adoption of patient portals (or the improvement of existing portals).
Rolling out a patient portal helps providers serve patient populations better and build a reputation as a business with heart because, as we have seen, streamlining administrative processes behind the scenes translates to better, faster service to patients.
Mohan Giridharadas, founder and CEO of LeanTaaS, takes the idea to the macro level. Hospitals and care providers, he says, who have their fingers on the pulse of innovation are capitalizing on technology to improve their efficiency, which in turn propels them forward both with service and reputation.
Below, we explore how rolling out successful patient portals helps to empower patients, engage them in their own care, and modernize the services a provider offers.
Facilitating Patient Engagement
Patients have come to expect better access and more control over their health records and their interactions with providers.
To address these expectations, many hospitals and clinics have launched patient portals to help increase engagement with the community they serve.
Edward Marx, CIO of Cleveland Clinic, argues that patient portals engage patients in their own care, which in turn helps them "to be well and stay well." And that's an outcome that benefits everyone.
Patient portals are no longer just scheduling and payment systems. They're engagement systems designed to help patients actually own their health outcomes. The features of a modern patient portal also include the ability for individuals to view their health history, monitor prescription requests and refills, view previous invoices and make payments, and access and complete intake forms before they even set foot in a clinic.
These features can have a huge impact on quality of care and health outcomes for patients. Here are a few examples:
- Improving medication adherence. Patients often take their medication incorrectly. The team at OpenNotes says poor adherence may lead to 125,000 deaths in the country each year and cause of $100 billion in excess healthcare spending. They have found that useful web portals can help curb this problem. "Encouraging patients to utilize a web portal to view their doctor's note is a cost effective and efficient way to influence medication taking behavior," Eric Wright, PharmD, MPH tells Open Notes.
- Increasing influenza vaccination coverage. In early 2018, the Journal of General Internal Medicine published a study that found that patient portals can be effective tools in prompting more people to get flu shots.
- Making care more accessible to certain patient populations. Recently, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs began offering patient portals to enable veterans to schedule their own appointments more easily or to schedule their specialty care in a way that is more convenient and intuitive. This, the VA argues, brings patients closer to their care and provides information for continuing care and chronic conditions.
- Building goodwill between patients and providers. A survey conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital also found that when patients feel the communication they have with their providers is clear and are satisfied with the care they receive, they're less likely to be readmitted to the hospital. That's a great prognosis for patient portal technology.
Rolling Out a Patient Portal
Convenience is the name of the game. If a patient portal lacks ease of access, then healthcare organizations will struggle to have patients adopt it.
People are familiar with convenient, easy-to-use applications to access information, and patient portals should be no different. David Bradshaw, executive vice president and chief strategy officer at Memorial Hermann in Houston, stresses that healthcare must keep up with other industries driven by the consumer demand for digital tools that are comfortable, easy, and quick to access.
Of course, implementation of a patient portal involves many intertwined components such as enrollment, marketing, training, support, and workflow design (and redesign). As with any new integration of technology, patient portals have some challenges to overcome.
Some providers choose to target populations of patients they feel get the most value from the portal and are more likely to use it. Since the best marketers of a portal are the more engaged providers, the burden to promote the portal falls directly on the shoulders of the staff.
For providers with the people resources, though, having staff promote and educate patients on the portal isn't a bad onboarding process. Jinous Rouhani, CEO of Austin Area Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Fertility, got patients to register on the clinic's portal by having staff walk them through step by step.
It's important, too, to understand who the portal's users will be, as each patient population group presents its own specific set of challenges. For example:
- A 2018 study by University of Tennessee researcher Ilana Graetz, Ph.D., et al found that minorities have lower rates of patient portal adoption.
- Never assume that older patients don't want to use the portal, University of Pittsburgh researcher Taya Irizarry, et al write. That happens to be one of the populations where portal adoption only continues to grow.
After you identify your target population, you need to understand it. Once you know who you're marketing to, you can use that information to shape engagement strategies to encourage adoption of the patient portal, delivering better care in the long run.
8 Patient Portal Success Stories
Below are some of the healthcare providers who have seen increased patient engagement and better outcomes from recent implementations of (or updates to) their patient portals.
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center
Researchers at UPMC began an initiative to improve patient care for adults with serious mental illness. James Schuster, MD, the chief medical officer for Medicaid, special needs, and behavioral services at UPMC Insurance Services Division, and his team created two models that would bring patient-centered medical homes into the new technological age.
As part of the patient self-directed model, patients used an online portal to consult with medical professionals and access educational materials. Because those with serious mental illness are also at an increased risk for chronic disease, this approach allowed all providers to work together to treat the whole patient. The study found that patients used preventative care services 36 percent more thanks to these models.
Western Sierra Medical Clinic
As a Section 330-funded clinic, WSMC has been a trusted resource for low-income families in Sierra County, California, for decades. In 2012, the Community Health Clinic tried to implement a patient portal. However, it did not adequately integrate the program and thus saw weak results.
In 2015 and 2016, the clinic launched a new patient portal system with a slower rollout and better integration. This time, the results were outstanding. In a short time, WSMC had enrolled 3,600 members in the patient portal and saw a significant decrease in call volume. This system freed up valuable staff time while increasing patient engagement.
Neil W. Wagle, MD, MBA and his colleagues at Partners HealthCare in Boston have found that Patient-Reported Outcome Measures (PROMs) were the missing link in their practice. Through their online platform, patients can continue to report on their health.
This PROM allows doctors to understand not only how well a patient recovers after a given treatment, but also what their life is like at that time. Over time, this data can help medical professionals understand more about treatments and procedures, and how to care for patients following their discharge.
"Digital natives" aren't the only patients who want better communication between doctors and patients. Gerilynn Sevenikar, vice president at Sharp Healthcare, says "it's clear that all generations are comfortable with some form of technology when it comes to health-related technologies."
In the first year after rolling out its online payment system, Sharp Healthcare processed more than 10,000 invoices online. Sevenikar says patients like to be able to pay their full balance, pay for a specific procedure, or visit and even set up payment plans online. The online portal allows patients to take control of their finances.
Lafayette General Health
After years of trying to integrate technology into its system, Lafayette General Health in Louisiana found the key to success: Make it work for doctors, too. Instead of having several systems and separating records, the hospital system merged portals.
"We have one record, one patient portal," says Edwina S. Mallery, assistant vice president of information systems. "We engaged physicians for a stronger alignment." The results have changed the system in profound ways. Unnecessary emergency department visits went down, physician satisfaction has gone up, and health records have become more streamlined.
Heritage Valley Health System
In Pennsylvania, the Heritage Valley Health System has successfully implemented an online patient portal through an app. The new system allows patients to check into the emergency room, schedule doctor appointments, and access secure messages from medical professionals.
Christy Kimble, director of clinical services and staff operations for Sewickley Valley Pediatrics, says patients appreciate the new app. "It's nice to be able to do things from your cell phone, your tablet. It's easy for them, if they're on a computer for work all day, if they're on their break, to be able to pop onto the computer, log in to the portal and search for an appointment if they know they need to make an appointment, or they need a refill of their child's medication, and they don't necessarily have time to stay on hold."
Highlands Health for Life
Patient portals work for care providers of all sizes. Highlands Health for Life is a small family practice in Denver that has seen the benefits of this technology.
Whitney Kennedy, MD, leads a team complete with two physician's assistants, front desk staff and a few medical assistants. Their patients range in age, technical ability, and physical condition, but the patient portal has been successful.
This practice has automated many office functions, such as appointment scheduling and delivering lab results. This allows more time for the small staff to meet patient needs. The clinic achieved these goals by making it mandatory for patients to sign up for the portal to receive their lab results.
The United States Air Force
Telehealth is set to change the healthcare industry around the world. For the United States Air Force, it has become a valuable tool, and that branch of the military has implemented a patient portal that allows patients to communicate with their providers entirely online.
In addition to features like online appointment scheduling and lab results, the Air Force has been able to replace some in-person appointments with online counterparts. This has allowed some patients to access specialty services from which they would otherwise be cut off.
Through a combination of telehealth services and a robust patient portal, these patients can receive genetic counseling, mental health counseling, and even nutrition services.
The Future is Now
The Air Force's experience with telehealth and patient portals is especially revealing. Recent research from Accenture revealed that three-quarters of healthcare consumers would use virtual care if it were offered. That's a clear signal that patients value convenience in their care delivery.
At the provider level, thoughtful, well-designed patient portals have a big role to play in creating those more convenient, more user-friendly patient experiences. And at the industry level? The research so far indicates better patient engagement leads to better health outcomes.
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