- Finding an effective use for the patient portal may not be instinctual in acute specialty settings. After all, patients don’t always need a follow-up appointment in some of these settings, and many patients aren’t accessing health information for chronic disease management.
Instead, it’s beneficial for specialty practices to view patient portals as practice- and system-wide tools that support not only patient engagement, but lean businesses as well.
The New Jersey health system Summit Medical Group has excellent patient portal use and a plethora of specialty groups. Patient portal adoption began at Summit with patient-centered ideals, but success came from a drive for better business operations.
“Patient portal adoption was really about getting patients to engage with their health and the health system, and being able to better communicate,” Summit’s Chief Information Officer Paul Shenenberger told PatientEngagementHIT.com.
“It’s all about communication,” he continued. “How we communicate in 2017 is all electronic, and that’s where the patient portal became so crucial to us.”
Since Summit adopted its patient portal, Shenenberger has seen strong adoption rates amongst all different patient populations. Although the portal has been useful for population health and chronic disease management, Summit - which uses athenaHealth’s patient portal - has also been an exemplar in utilizing the patient portal to improve business operations.
athenaHealth CMO Todd Rothenhaus explained that specialty groups like those within Summit’s network see patient portal success because they use it as a lean business tool. Even if patients are visiting a facility for extremely acute treatment that requires no follow-up, successful specialty groups know how to use the patient portal as a tool to grow their business.
“They’re growing a business and they’re looking for that engagement, as well,” Rothenhaus said. “Specialty groups want to know if there’s a spouse or a family member who might seek care, and they want to be gaining their market share.”
Although enrolling a patient in the portal during a short visit may seem arduous, the portal can make a key difference in gaining mindshare in the patient. For example, if the patient already has a portal account with a certain orthopedist, she could be more likely to visit if she should hurt her knee again.
Rothenhaus says specialists also recognize the patient portal’s ability to build operational efficiency.
“Specialists are operationally focused,” Rothenhaus stated. “They’re just trying to make sure there is operational excellence and they are eradicating all of the work that are barriers to being more productive.”
The front-end of the business can become more effective by adding prescription refills, scheduling, and other functions to the portal.
“Specialists have high portal adoption because they made the decision to cut the costs and want patients to schedule an appointment or refill a prescription by going to the portal,” Rothenhaus reiterated. “They stopped even letting people conduct business via the phone.”
At Summit, staff used the portal as a part of a phone call reduction program. Shenenberger and his team reframed the patient portal as an outlet for telephone calls, hoping to redirect patient questions and other requests to the portal’s secure messaging functions.
“We’re not there yet, but that’s the vision,” Shenenberger said. “I’d like to be able to reduce the calls to the organization by as much as 30 to 40 percent by leveraging the technology that we have. I don’t know if I can achieve it, but I’d like to make it.”
Rothenhaus and Shenenberger agreed that all stakeholders must be on board to achieve these goals. Front-end staff, clinicians, and executives alike need to buy into the notion that the patient portal and resulting patient engagement will be a lean business driver.
“Summit does a lot at the front desk when people were physically present because it’s a very easy way to drive patient portal adoption,” Rothenhaus pointed out. “Physicians were welcoming patients to join, encouraging them to use it. Patients are a little tepid until they hear from the physicians sometimes that they’d love them to use the tool.”
Shenenberger concurred, noting that engagement from the clinician and all other staff were crucial to ensuring strong patient portal use.
“The biggest litmus test was definitely the engagement of every level of employee in the patient portal journey,” Shenenberger said. “It was all levels, from the physician all the way to the front office to the administration that was stressing the importance of the patient portal.”
Patient portals can only be effective in building a strong business if practices use it fully and effectively, the pair maintained. There are several specialty practices that have the patient portal but barely utilize it. Rothenhaus noted though that those are the practices that see limited return on investment or patient engagement as a result.
Instead, success will come when practices utilize all features in the portal.
“The portal is one of those labor saving devices if used and leveraged to the fullest extent,” Rothenhaus concluded. “Don’t pick pieces of it. It’s not just a lens. It’s the open scheduling, it’s the messaging. You must have the marketer’s attract, engage, and retain mindset to be successful.”