Effectively using patient portals, while oftentimes an important part of increasing patient engagement, is not as simple as telling patients to use them and then seeing the healthcare benefits follow. Rather, patient portals can be seen as a mixture of pros and cons, benefits and challenges.
Between their potential to improve patient engagement across all points of care and the mounting challenge to actually get patients to adopt them, patient portals present a dynamic challenge to provider workflows.
By understanding some of the patient portal challenges, as well as some of the rewards, providers can better understand the road they face ahead in patient engagement.
Pro: Better communication with chronically ill patients
One of the clearest benefits to a patient portal is the added ability for communication between patients and providers, and these benefits are felt strongest with regard to chronically ill patients.
With the secure messaging functions on patient portals, chronically ill patients are able to message their providers whenever they have a simple question, reducing time on the phone and unnecessary trips to the doctor’s office.
A recent study out of Kaiser Permanente of Southern California (KPSC) shows that online patient engagement through patient portals can actually improve chronic disease management by almost 10 percent, depending upon the condition.
Reminders from providers, and the capability for patients to discuss issues with their physicians, help increase patient engagement and therefore play a role in boosting the patient’s overall health.
Con: Healthcare data security concerns
Patient portals, generally speaking, are a health IT interface on which patients can view their own protected health information (PHI). Although this can be viewed as a good thing because patients do have the right to see their own health data, it also opens doors for security concerns.
A patient portal may be just one more place for a potential hacker or healthcare data thief to access a patient’s data, leaving that patient liable to identity theft. However, with appropriate safeguards, these concerns can be kept at a minimum.
Just recently, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) clarified HIPAA regulations in relation to patient access to health information, making clearer the conditions under which patients may access their health information and the protections that information has under HIPAA.
The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) also states that patient portals often have several technical safeguards to protect from healthcare data security issues.
To make sure that your private health information is safe from unauthorized access, patient portals are hosted on a secure connection and accessed via an encrypted, password-protected logon.
EHRs also have an “audit trail” feature that keeps a record of who access your information, what changes were made, and when.
Although patient portals use safeguards, there are other safety tips you should follow when accessing the patient portal. Always remember to protect your username and password from others and make sure to only log on to the patient portal from a personal computer or secure computer.
Pro: More complete and accurate patient information
Patient portals, by offering a patient a view of their health information and the ability to communicate with their physician, create opportunities to obtain more complete and accurate patient information.
When viewing their data, patients are able to identify any inaccuracies and inconsistencies in their health record and then act by either securely messaging their provider or bringing up the issue at their next physician visit.
Although patients aren’t able to manually edit these problems on their own, this partial patient control of information makes it more likely for providers to work with more complete and accurate patient data, increasing the quality of care they provide.
Con: Difficult patient buy-in
The most frequently reported downside to patient portals is the difficulty providers often face in generating patient buy-in. Although providers are generally aware of the health perks of using a patient portal, patients are seldom as excited about the portal as they are.
Patient portal regulations that are a part of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) meaningful use requirements add another foil to the patient portal adoption debate. Because it is quite clear that providers cannot control the actions of their patients, portals are sometimes viewed negatively because providers struggle with this meaningful use attestation requirement.
Although there is no cut-and-dried solution to this problem, several providers have shared their secrets to success in encouraging patients to adopt the patient portal. For example, ONC reports that positive provider testimony goes a long way in convincing a patient to take up the technology because patients generally trust their doctor’s opinions.
“They found that it is particularly persuasive when providers encourage patients to use the portal because patients trust providers and value their opinions,” ONC says of the Primary Health Medical Group’s patient portal efforts. “One provider says he reinforces a patient’s use of the portal by closing all messages with ‘Thanks for using the portal.’”
ONC also provides suggested talking points for providers to reinforce the importance of patient portal use:
Do you use e-mail? The portal is just a secure e-mail system that we can use to communicate.
You can send me a message and it goes right into your chart, so I have all of your information at hand when I read it and respond.
If you use it and don’t like it, you don’t have to continue to use it. Just let us know.
It’s really very easy to use. If you use the Internet, you’ll most likely find the portal helpful and easy to navigate.
Pro: Increased patient ownership of their own care
Big-picture benefits of patient portals are undoubtedly headed by an ability to empower patients and give them ownership in their own care. When patients have access to their health information with patient portals and the decisions their physicians are making, they inevitably feel like a partner in care rather than simply recipients of care.
Industry research backs this up. In a 2013 study from the Portland VA Medical Center, researchers found that patients who were able to access their health information on the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) MyHealtheVet patient portal reported better control over their health.
Patients’ perspectives provide insight into how shared notes can foster active patient participation in their care. In all focus groups, participants put knowledge from their records to use by learning more about their health issues, gaining more knowledge about their providers’ views, and advocating for themselves in discussions about their care. Reading health information in an unpressured manner allowed patients time to contemplate its content and meaning. Records were also a starting place for online research.
Healthcare technology certainly is not perfect, and that extends to patient portals. Although they promise great healthcare benefits, there are several challenges that providers need to overcome in order to make portal use effective. However, through education and carefully developed strategy, patient portals can play a great deal in increasing patient engagement.