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Patient Portal Adoption Hinges on Unique Demographic Barriers

Certain patient demographics may face specific barriers to patient portal adoption, causing slower uptake with the technology.

By Sara Heath

Population demographics may be a significant influence when it comes to patient portal adoption, says a recent study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.

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The 12-month study investigated patient portal adoption among the 36,549 patients who were offered an access code at the OCHIN practice-based research network (PBRN).

The researchers found that male patients, non-white patients, Hispanic patients, Spanish-speaking patients, and those with lower incomes were significantly less likely to adopt patient portals than their female, white, higher income counterparts. At the time of the study, the Spanish version of MyChart, the patient portal tested, was not yet available, which likely contributed to these results.

Patients who were uninsured or publically insured through either Medicare or Medicaid were likewise less likely to adopt patient portals than those with private insurance. However, once the uninsured or publicly insured population did register for the patient portal, they became more likely to engage with different features on the patient portal.

In total, 29 percent of participants adopted the patient portal, showing that patient demographics may pose a significant barrier to robust patient portal uptake.

These demographic disparities in patient portal adoption likewise suggest that certain populations face unique barriers. For example, Spanish-speaking patients had lower rates of patient portal adoption and use. This was likely because this population faced the barrier of registering for a portal that was not in their native language.

Other demographic groups may face their own specific barriers.

“It is important to recognize known barriers to access to and use of patient portal systems, including limited access to the necessary technology, low functional health literacy, and concerns regarding the privacy and security of personal health information,” the researchers said.

The study also provided insights into patient portal super-users, defined as individuals who logged into the portal at least twice per month. Overall, six percent of all study participants qualified as super-users.

Super-users were not only more likely than others to view their health data, but were also more likely to utilize different patient portal features such as secure messaging or making provider requests.

The research team said that these findings suggested that patients found portals useful. Although few patients ended up registering for the patient portal, a notable proportion of those who did engaged with the tool, the researchers said.

This may indicate that providers need to better educate their patients on the benefits of the patient portal to encourage initial portal registration.

“These results point to the potential need for developing, testing, and implementing systematic strategies to facilitate initial activation and use of personal portals by patients,” the researchers explained.

If providers can motivate their patients to register for the patient portal, it may become more likely that those patients will frequently utilize the technology.

To spur increased patient portal adoption, the researchers suggested educational workshops. These workshops could discuss the benefits of robust patient portal use and walk patients through portal navigation.

These actions may help to reduce user frustration and confusion over how to use patient portals.  In a recent poll by Software Advice, forty-one percent of

f patients stated that patient portal interfaces are too confusing, keeping them from utilizing the tool. Thirty-seven percent of patients said they were frustrated with lack of provider response via direct message, one of the prominent functions on the patient portal.

Frustrations reportedly grow as patients begin to interact with more patient portal data.

The poll showed that 21 percent of patients became frustrated with the amount of medical jargon filling their portals. Eighteen percent were frustrated that they could not upload their own images or data to the tools.

According to the Software Advice researchers, patients may not be adopting patient portals because they are generally frustrated with the tools. Until health IT developers can determine how to alleviate these issues, providers may not be successful in encouraging robust patient portal adoption.

It may be helpful for health IT developers to work alongside both providers and patients in order to glean the best results. In collaborating with all users, researchers say health IT professionals can help improve patient portal uptake, and potentially patient engagement as a whole.

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