- While healthcare professionals often hear that patient portals are critical to boosting patient engagement and improving care quality, they may wonder if patients really value these tools.
According to Susan Wolver, MD, associate professor of internal medicine at VCU Medical Center, the short answer to that question is yes, they do.
“We actually just put out a survey within our patient portal and we have nearly 1,500 responses, so I know what patients are thinking about the portal from their end, and they truly love it as a patient engagement tool,” she said to PatientEngagementHIT.com.
“In fact, 80 percent of people said that it helps them take better care of themselves. So that’s unbelievable. Eighty-five percent of the people who knew their notes were there are actually looking at their notes.”
VCU’s patients are also pleased with the portal’s data transparency because it helps them take charge of their care.
According to Deborah Burgett, RN, MSHA, director of VCU’s Office of Clinical Transformation, patients and their families use that transparency to look into treatment plans, understand medication regimens, and ensure they receive the correct test or procedure.
“ There are so many uses if we continue to open up the transparency of the record,” Burgett said. “Who better to have the data? The patients need to have the data, the families need to have the data, so that they can see what’s going on with their sick loved one or themselves.”
How does the portal affect providers’ workflows?
With a tool that is so greatly valued by patients, it’s not surprising that providers are fans, too. After all, what is good for the patient is often good for the provider.
Patient portals can revolutionize healthcare when they’re robustly utilized by providers. Because Wolver takes full advantage of her portal, she explained, she can more fully manage patient care outside of the office.
“[The patient portal] has absolutely changed the paradigm and the dialogue from episodic care to care in between those points,” she noted. “Different providers take advantage of it in different ways, but for me it really has completely changed the way that I practice medicine.”
By using the secure direct messaging features on the patient portal, Wolver has been able to check in with patients and adjust their care as needed, all remotely. Should there be an instance where a patient needs to come into the practice, she is able to call on them to do that. All of this has revolutionized how doctors deliver care.
“To think that we can affect any kind of change in moving a patient towards health with seeing them either one time a year for healthier patients, and even four or five times a year for patients who have chronic disease, really doesn’t make sense,” Wolver explained. “So the portal gives us the ability to have all of those touch points in between.”
The benefits don’t end with secure direct messaging, either. Now that most of Wolver’s patients have adopted the portal, they tend to come to appointments well-prepared and with new information that positively influences how she approaches the appointment.
“[The patients] feel that they are more participant in their care,” Wolver said. “They bring things to their providers that they may not have understood or known about before. I know all kinds of care that has been transformed because of the portal.”
Even when Wolver doesn’t have to communicate with her patients outside of the office, the portal is there to help improve wellness by serving as a point of reference. If patients forget something that was mentioned in their most recent appointment, they can check their portal for a reminder.
“There’s great data that patients forget sometimes half of what they’ve been told in the visit. And when you deal with very complicated patients like I do, how we ever thought that patients understood our instructions is silly,” Wolver said. “Now this gives them the opportunity to go back and actually read our notes.”
What is hindering provider buy-in?
Despite Wolver and Burgett’s high praise for the patient portal, these tools aren’t anywhere near ubiquitous in the provider realm.
Although patient portal adoption is growing, ONC data shows that in 2014, sixty-four percent of hospitals gave their patients the ability to view, download, and transmit their health data, and only 51 percent had secure direct messaging options.
“The power of the portal is, I think, underestimated,” Wolver said.
If the patient portal is such a great tool for both patients and providers, then why hasn’t it been fully adopted?
Wolver believes that uptake rates are slow because providers are overwhelmed by significant time constraints, which may keep them from wanting to incorporate a whole new technology into their workflow.
“We’re currently overburdened by so many things that do not require physician decision-making. We’re at an absolute crisis right now,” she said. “We spend more time documenting our visits than we spend time doing anything else. And so it is absolutely a measure of time. If providers had more time, I think they would all see the utility of the portal.”
Wolver posed a potential solution to this time crisis, saying that redistributing some of the work providers face, especially some of the prompts they see on the portal, will alleviate some of their burdens and help them to see the potential of the portal.
“We have to figure out how to get a lot of things off of our plates so that we can do the medical decision making that we can do within the portal and use it as another tool – a great tool – that we have.”
Time is not the only problem, however. Wolver said some providers are uneasy about patients seeing labs before them, which could cause undue panic.
“Some providers are worried about giving patients access to their radiology reports and their labs,” she explained. “We expose labs in real time and we expose radiology and pathology in four days. And there are a lot of providers that are nervous about that because we’ve always been in a ‘the doctor owns the record’ mentality.”
VCU’s solution to this was helping providers explain that situation to their patients. By opening up communication lines, patients will trust their providers more, and will feel comfortable that they will explain any health issues they may be facing.
“So in order to help the docs understand that it’s okay, what we taught them was to change the conversation,” Burgett said. “They may end up getting the results before [the patient], but explain that to them. Say, ‘you may see this before me, and if you’re worried about it, we’ll talk. I promise, we’ll talk. If it’s too long, give me a call. Or send me an email, send me a message through the portal.’”
Health technology is only going to continue to evolve, demanding that providers keep up. As these evolutions continue, healthcare organizations like VCU Health will need to develop strategies to help their providers adjust to these new tools like the portal, and perhaps someday they, like Wolver and Burgett, will see the potential they truly have.