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A Look Into Patient Portals

Patient portals give people access to their health information whenever they need it. With 24/7 accessibility, patient portals eliminate the need to contact a physician’s office to find out things like when an appointment is scheduled or what medications are currently prescribed.

To access a portal, patients use a secure log in and password given to them by their physician. They can then view and print information such as:

  • Immunization records
  • Lab test results
  • Prescription information
  • Allergies
  • Doctor visits
  • Physician instructions and appointment notes

In addition, patient portal features often include requesting medication refills, exchanging emails with their doctors, physician’s assistants, nurses and other members of the healthcare team, and a bill pay feature. Because they contain private medical information, patient portals must follow strict security protocols, such as encrypting log-ins and passwords, and enabling audit trails when an account is accessed or changes are made.

Not only do patient portals offer convenience, they can also help improve healthcare by increasing engagement and giving patients the opportunity to better care for themselves and their families. In fact, a recent study by Kaiser Permanente showed that one-third of chronically ill patients who utilized patient portals to exchange emails with their healthcare provider said that the communication improved their level of care.

Patient Portals and Healthcare Policy

To encourage the use of Electronic Health Records (EHRs), the federal government set objectives for healthcare providers, called Meaningful Use. Providers were required to adopt EHR technology, along with patient portals for viewing EHRs, in order to qualify for incentive programs.

The first stage of the program required data capture and sharing, and was enacted in 2011 – 2012. Stage 2 began in 2014 and required that at least 50% of patients have access to their EHR, and five percent to view, download and transmit healthcare information, plus submit secure messages to their healthcare providers through a patient portal.

When attempting to meet these requirements and provide value to their patients, many physicians reported a number of challenges, including:

  • Limited understanding of the technology
  • Difficulty convincing patients to use portals
  • A misconception that patients are uninterested in managing their own care
  • Lack of patient awareness of the benefits of portals

Increasing Patient Use of Portals Takes Planning

Once patients are accustomed to using patient portals, they often prefer them over other methods for contacting providers, scheduling appointments or checking on medications. Medical offices prefer communicating through portals because it saves time for nurses and receptionists, as messages appear in real-time on their computer screens.

Increasing patients’ use of portals can be challenging, but physicians around the country are finding success by implementing tips like these:

  • Publicize the portal through emails, office signs, mail inserts and staff talking points.
  • Carefully explain how the portal will benefit your patient, including how it will make their lives easier.
  • Put in extra effort by following up with patients who have not logged in to retrieve messages after one week.
  • Assure patients that they can discuss test results and other issues over the phone instead of through the portal.
  • Offer a mobile version so patients can access the portal on their smartphones.
  • Ask your vendor for materials to help explain and promote the technology to your patients.
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