Patient Data Access News

Why Aren’t Patient Portals Used as Conversation Starters?

Research shows that most patients use patient portal summaries just to access their health data, rather than to promote dynamic patient engagement.

By Sara Heath

Most patients use patient portal summaries to get access to their health information, and not necessarily to engage with their physicians about their care, a recent study showed.


While industry experts tout patient portals’ ability to start patient and provider conversations about care, this study indicated that patients are mostly just accessing their health data and reviewing that information on their portal summaries. Portals’ use as actual conversation starters are rarer, the research team explained.

The Massachusetts-based research team sought to determine the characteristics of patients who regularly access their patient portal summaries, as well as the behavioral aspects that influence their access.

While the researchers determined no distinct characteristics that predicted portal summary access, they did identify several behavioral traits and attitudes surrounding summary use.

As noted above, patients were far more likely to use patient portal summaries of care to gain access to their health data, rather than to engage in meaningful conversations with their providers about their care.

“Our study found that behavioral beliefs related to patient access of information through the [after visit summary], specifically the ability to track visits and tests, have medical information more readily accessible, and obtain medical information more efficiently, were more important than beliefs about patient engagement in their health care, such as clarifying issues with their doctor or reinforcing instructions,” the researchers determined.

While these findings are consistent with prior research, the team noted that patients do not use the patient portal summaries to their fullest potential. Industry thought leaders regularly explain that portals are the gateway to meaningful patient and provider relationships, but as they are used right now, they simply provide patients with an alternative means to view their health data.

The researchers suggested doctors and office staff reinforce more engaged behaviors with the patient portal summaries to foster better patient engagement.

“It is possible that the use of the [after visit summary] to engage patients in their health care is not being promoted,” the researchers said, highlighting the need for better provider activation in promoting patient engagement. “Such efforts can lead to patient activation and the use of information by patients to undertake recommended treatment plans and self-management, both of which are important goals for the AVS.”

In fact, provider recommendations proved to be extremely important in this study. Providers who suggested patients access their portal summaries saw much higher levels of access than those who did not.

“The strongest normative belief and motivation to comply were associated with the patient’s doctor,” the research team noted. “Patients believe that their doctor thinks they should access the [after visit summary] and they want to do what their doctor thinks.”

Previous research shows that general patient portal adoption tends to hinge on provider viewpoints of the technology, but in this case, the researchers found that use of specific portal functions also depended upon provider suggestions.

“Our study finds that clinicians also have an important role in encouraging patients to access specific functionality of portals such as the [after visit summary],” the team explained.

An additional factor influencing patient portal summary use included ease of access to the summaries.

The research team identified several areas in which they could perform further research, including in patient demographic use of portal summaries and patient satisfaction with portal summaries. However, their current study identified several useful pieces of information that may influence provider and patient interaction.

In order to get the most out of patient portals and all of their offerings, including patient portal summaries, providers need to reinforce these behaviors with their patients. Not only will such reinforcement remind patients of the summaries’ existence, but it will remind them of the importance of accessing such data.

Furthermore, providers will need to remind their patients to fully engage with this information. Instead of simply allowing patients to view and learn about their health information, patient portal summaries can help spark dynamic conversations between patients and providers, improving levels of patient engagement.


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