Patient Data Access News

Can Patient Portal Interventions Improve Flu Vaccination Rates?

Through direct messaging and phone calls through the patient portal, providers can streamline their patient engagement strategies to promote flu vaccination.

By Sara Heath

Although the height of flu season is winding down, researchers are working on patient engagement strategies through patient portal interventions to promote flu vaccination going forward.


In a recent article published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research Research Protocols, experts from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and Reliant Medical Group explain an ongoing study regarding the use of patient portal engagement to boost flu vaccination rates among older adults.

Through the use of patient portal messages and interactive voice recognition calls, the research team, led by Sarah L. Cutrona, MD, MPH, seeks to encourage patients to get their flu vaccinations. Due to the nature of getting a vaccination, the patient portal is an ideal method to boost patient engagement, despite lacking research.

“Few studies have tested the use of patient-directed vaccine reminders sent via patient portals; those that have done so have focused exclusively on untethered (ie, personally controlled) patient health records,” the research team writes. “Influenza vaccines are a logical target for patient-directed [clinical decision support] because they are familiar to the general population and are recommended widely but completed at suboptimal rates.”

As noted above, the study utilizes both secure direct messages as well as interactive voice recognition calls. To fully test all of these patient engagement tools, the researchers split their 20,000 test patients into four cohorts: one receiving secure direct messages, one receiving calls, one receiving both direct messages and calls, and one receiving neither.

The patient portal interventions were administered leading up to the 2014 flu season, and the researchers are primarily measuring the percent increase of patients who received a flu vaccine between 2014 and 2015. Additionally, the researchers are measuring the number of patients self-reporting their flu vaccines which they received outside of their provider clinics.

This research has the potential to notably affect providers’ patient engagement strategies to promote flu vaccination, particularly because it may affect both the number of patients receiving vaccinations within their clinics and the number of self-reported vaccinations received outside of their clinics.

“This study will test the effectiveness of a patient-directed CDS intervention, aimed at improving rates of influenza vaccination within a primary care adult population,” the researchers explain. “The approach described has important implications for future patient-directed CDS initiatives seeking to use tethered patient portals.”

Additionally, these patient portal communication methods also adhere to several patient engagement philosophies, including accessing the right patient at the right time.

“Targeting patients through portals aligns well with the ‘CDS Five Rights,’ which stipulate that effective CDS delivers the right information to the right people, via the right channels, in the right intervention formats and at the right points of workflow,” the researchers note. “Our approach studies the possibility that the patient is the person best positioned to receive and act on information related to influenza vaccination.”

This kind of outreach is particularly important because of the vast number of individuals affected by the flu virus. Millions of patients get the flu each year, the researchers state, and yet a relatively small number actually prevent the illness through vaccination.

“According to CDC estimates, during the 2013-14 influenza season, influenza vaccination resulted in approximately 7.2 million fewer illnesses and 90,068 fewer hospitalizations,” the researchers say. “Despite numerous reasons to protect against influenza, only 45% of the US population received influenza vaccinations during the 2012-13 influenza season.”

Conclusive data is due out later in 2016. However, as of right now, the researchers note the potential patient portal interventions have on boosting flu vaccination rates.

“The approach described has important implications for future patient-directed CDS initiatives seeking to use tethered patient portals,” the researchers explain. “As a low-cost and rapid means of communicating with patients who have activated their electronic accounts, patient portals are a promising channel through which CDS may be delivered.”

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