Your Guide to the Benefits of Patient Portals

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Patient portals have gone from “nice to have” to near ubiquity. One AHA report states that in 2016, 92% of hospitals had adopted the patient portal. In our EHR software directory, 72% of web-based EHR solutions come with an integrated patient portal.

Even though most patients have access to a patient portal, research shows that portal use is still low.

According to a survey released during the 2016 HIMSS conference, 58% of healthcare professionals connect with their patients via mobile optimized patient portals. However, a HealthMine survey found that only 20% of patients use their portals to engage in shared decision-making with their providers.

Why is this a bad thing? Because patient portals offer tons of benefits, but only if both the patient and provider use them.

In this post I’ll go over what a patient portal is along with five benefits they offer patients and providers.

What is a patient portal?

Patient portals are websites or apps that are connected to an EHR that patients can log in to view their health data. Which data patients can view, and what they can do with their data, varies according to which software you choose. Which patient data each portal stores varies considerably between vendors.

Depending on the software provider, a patient portal can show patients their:

  • Diagnoses
  • Lab results
  • Physician notes
  • Health histories
  • Discharge summaries
  • Immunizations

The level of detail offered also varies widely. Some portals only allow patients to view demographic and medical history data, while others offer real-time lab results.

The functionality of a portal also varies depending on the software vendor and setup. In some patient portals, patients can directly message their providers, schedule appointments, pay their bills, request prescription refills, and update their personal information.

Screenshot of patient portal

Example of a patient portal by ElationHealth (Source)

So why invest in a patient portal? Here are some benefits to patient portals:

1. More patient engagement

Allowing patients to view patient-generated health data in their portal is a good way to bridge the gap between patients and care team members.

Patient-generated health data can include anything from app-collected data to family histories to recent symptoms. Some of the data comes from health-tracking apps and devices such as FitBits and Apple Watches and some comes from the patients inputting the data themselves. This data not only gives providers valuable insights into clinical issues, but is a great way to get patients participating in their own healthcare.

Research shows that patients who are able to see their own health data are better prepared to interact effectively with providers about their care. Secure messaging functionality particularly facilitates closer relationships between patients and providers.

2. Increased patient loyalty

Streamlining the patient experience through a patient portal can increase consumer loyalty, according to David Clain and Stephen Moseley of athenahealth.

“If you are a patient at a primary care practice or you have some cardiac issue and you have an ongoing relationship with a cardiologist, I think it’s really helpful to be able to continue the conversation outside of the office,” Clain says. “And once you’ve done that a couple of times, you feel that connection to your provider, you have a sense that they are committed to your health.”

Research also shows that patients prefer to pay their bills online rather than by check. Allowing patients to do this through a secure patient portal can improve patient satisfaction rates and boost loyalty.

Data from athenaResearch shows that patient portal users are more likely to make a return visit to a practice within 18 months than non-portal users.

3. Improved revenue cycle management

Despite the fact that Deloitte predicts worldwide spending on healthcare will increase by anywhere from 2.4% to 7.5% between 2015 and 2020, many healthcare delivery organizations are facing increased operational costs, which are eating into their returns.

Getting more of your bills paid faster can help alleviate these pressures. Allowing patients to pay their medical bills online not only boosts satisfaction and loyalty, but Clain and Moseley’s data also shows that it improves revenue cycle management. They say that while athenahealth collected 30% more overall in 2015 than the year before, bills collected through their patient portal increased by 77%.

Learn more:

4. Increased medication adherence and vaccination rates

One Geisinger Health study shows that patients with access to doctors’ notes actually have higher rates of medication adherence because they are more engaged in and informed of their treatment plans.

An email asking patients to log in to their patient portal may also boost vaccination rates. In one study this worked better than phone calls for prompting patients to get their flu shots.

5. Better communication of urgent and end-of-life care wishes

A patient portal can store and communicate a patient’s wishes for their urgent and end-of-life care.

For example, a London-based specialist NHS clinical service, Coordinate My Care, created myCMC where patients can communicate to emergency services and care providers which interventions they want and don’t want.

In the portal, patients can specify:

  • The treatment they want
  • Where they want to be treated
  • When they want to be treated
  • Contact information for who should be notified if their condition deteriorates
  • Whether they’re an organ donor

This doesn’t just help patients ensure their wishes are respected, but saves the health system money by avoiding sending patients to hospitals when they do not want to go.

Patient portal pitfalls

While portals offer tons of benefits, there are some things to watch out for when setting up and encouraging patients to use their portals.

Most patients have access to a patient portal, but as we discussed earlier, portal use by patients is still low.

According to Marcia Cheadle, RN and senior director for clinical applications at Inland Northwest Health Services, providers need to show patients how to use the portal before they leave the doctor’s office. This will increase the likelihood that patients will actually use their portals.

Due to low usage rates, patient portals might not be the best tool to collect patient data such as patient-reported outcomes measures (PROMs). “Although the highly patient-centric tool may sound ideal for engaging patients in the survey, there is in fact limited patient portal uptake,” writes Sara Heath for Patient Engagement HIT. For this kind of data, using a patient portal in addition other collection methods might work best.

Learn more about patient portals

To learn more about the benefits of patient portals and what yours should do, check out these blog posts:

Do your patients use their portals as much as you’d like them to? Why or why not? And what functionality do you wish your patient portal had? Let me know in the comments.

Looking for Medical Practice Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Medical Practice Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is a former Capterra analyst.

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