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Patient Education About Patient Portals Key for Self-Knowledge

Only 38 percent of patients know their cholesterol, while over half know their childhood phone number. These disparities highlight a need for better patient education about patient portals and data access.

patient education portal

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- Patient health literacy and knowledge about their own medical information leaves a lot to be desired, leading to calls for better patient education about patient portal and data access, according to a survey conducted by Kelton Global on behalf of Quest Diagnostics.

The survey of about 1,000 adult patients found that only 57 percent know their own blood type. Only 38 percent know their cholesterol levels, while 33 percent know their blood sugar levels.

Racial disparities also emerged when looking at self-knowledge about key biometric data. Seventy-one percent of African American patients said they don’t know their cholesterol and 77 percent said they don’t know their blood sugar levels. African Americans represent a high-risk population for heart disease, making it especially troubling that these patients are unaware of key health information.

Patient engagement with their own health data is dwarfed by their knowledge about various passwords and other information they access in their everyday lives, the survey showed. Ninety-four percent of patients know their Social Security numbers and 80 percent have their social media passwords memorized.

Seventy-five and 74 percent of patients know their bank account balances and wifi passwords, respectively. Fifty-five percent can recall their childhood phone numbers.

None of this is to say that the above-mentioned information is not important for individuals to remember. However, medical experts across the country have likewise noted that basic knowledge of one’s biometric data is key for making informed healthcare decisions and meaningfully engaging in the healthcare system.

Patients’ limited knowledge about their own health information is likely due to their inability to access their own health data. Forty percent of respondents said they did not have or did not know if they had access to their own lab results. Twenty percent said they were unable to provide lab results to referring clinicians who asked.

Instead, patients are opting for less digital and more outdated modes of record keeping. One-third of respondents said they keep their medical records in a filing cabinet in their homes. This finding remains true when controlling for younger patients ages 20 to 37 who most medical experts say are most poised for health IT and patient portal adoption.

These findings likely point to a disparity between patient portal access and patient digital health literacy. Ninety percent of healthcare organizations offer patient portal access, meaning 90 percent of organizations give patients some mechanism by which they can view their own health information and lab results.

This latest survey data shows that patients do not have enough information about the patient portal or other tools on which they can view their medical information.

Patients also want to know more about their medical information, the survey continued. Eighty-seven percent of respondents said there are numerous reasons they should have access to their health data, such as when accessing emergency treatment. Forty-seven percent of respondents said patient data access would help them make more informed healthcare decisions for themselves or their family members.

Other data suggests that better patient education about patient portals will be key for inspiring patient use. Currently, just about 50 percent of patients actually use their patient portals, meaning only about half of patients are even viewing their own medical information.

A 2018 study from the University of Michigan found that patient education and provider testimony may motivate more patients to access the patient portal.

Ninety-five percent of patients who use the patient portal said their providers had recommended the tool.

Patients who didn’t use the portal said they had security concerns, preferred to communicate with their providers in person, or did not believe they had a use for the patient portal. All of this suggests that access to technology and other key infrastructure are not barriers to portal use; patient education about technology is.

“It will require education as well as technological designs that enable patients to communicate with providers in acceptable ways,” said lead author Denise Anthony, professor of health management and policy at U-M’s School of Public Health.

Some policy changes could address those education challenges, Anthony and her colleagues said. For example, incentive programs could encourage providers to spend more time with their patients educating them about how to use the patient portal. Patient education should also touch on the importance of portal engagement and the security provisions in place to keep patient data safe.

Ideally, driving better patient education about the portal will help patients become more familiar with the tool, increase use and adoption, and improve patient health literacy.

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