Following the introduction of electronic medical records (EMR software) and electronic health records (EHR software), the use of patient portals has become increasingly popular in healthcare organizations of all sizes and specialties. You may be wondering, “What is a patient portal and what does it do?” While it may seem obvious that these portals allow patients access to their medical information, it’s important to remember that patient portal software is used to improve the quality of care provided while enabling greater communication between physicians and their patients.
Patient portals help encourage better physician-patient relationships and give patients more control over their treatment. They’re able to check lab results, request prescription refills, update insurance information, manage any unpaid balances and more. Throughout this article we’ll discuss what a patient portal is and how it can be beneficial for your health organization.
What Is a Patient Portal?
Patient portals were developed to improve the way in which patients and healthcare providers interact. A product of meaningful use requirements, they were mandated as a way to provide patients with timely access to their healthcare. Specifically, patient portals give patients access to their health information so that they can take a more active role.
There are two main types of patient portals: a standalone system and an integrated service. Integrated patient portal software functionality usually comes as a part of an EMR system, an EHR system or practice management software. But at their most basic, they’re simply web-based tools.
Patient portals are mainly used to retrieve lab results, ask a question or update patient profiles and insurance providers. Some patient portals also allow patients to schedule appointments and pay bills directly through the system. For providers, they represent an opportunity to increase patient engagement, promote loyalty, manage costs and streamline workflows.
Benefits of Patient Portals
No matter the type of platform that you choose, your patient portal can provide your patients with secure online access to their medical details and increase their engagement with your practice. And not to mention that it does so while providing several benefits for healthcare providers as well. Some of these benefits include:
More and more healthcare providers have introduced their own patient portals as the medical industry has shifted focus toward patient-centered care. Organizations offering patient access to their medical records is at an all-time high. As a result, an increasing number of patients are signing up and actively using these services.
A report from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), it was revealed that over 90% of hospitals allow for patients to access their medical records, with 72% of organizations giving patients full view, download and transmit capabilities. With that being said, for over half of these facilities, fewer than 25% of patients actually adopt and use them. Healthcare organizations are working on adding additional tools and features, partly in an effort to get more patients involved throughout their treatment process.
Increased Office Efficiency
Implementing a patient portal for your medical practice can increase efficiency in your office by making communication between you and your patients easier. Patient portals help save time when signing up new clients, allowing patients to fill out personal information electronically without having to answer the same questions over and over. This also results in fewer errors and inconsistencies regarding a patient’s file.
Patients are also able to communicate more easily with their providers. They don’t have to wait to receive lab results over the phone or in the mail. Instead, they can do so by simply logging in to their portal. Patients can exchange messages with their physicians at any time. This can save time for receptionists and nurses, especially since the messages appear in real time. These can also be used to send out automated patient reminders for any upcoming appointments, which helps lead to a reduction in no-shows, allowing your physicians to treat more patients on a daily basis.
Using a patient portal can also streamline workflows in your office. Your receptionists and nurses no longer have to deal with simple, non-urgent questions over the phone, since your office staff can move these communications online. This reserves your phone lines and your office staff’s time for dealing with more urgent healthcare needs.
Promotion of Telemedicine
Patient portals can also reduce the number of unnecessary patient visits to your office, allowing you to fit in more patients who actually need to see you. This can help facilitate telemedicine, which enables patients to consult with you through the messaging system. For example, instead of scheduling an appointment to see their physician for a change in medication doses, the patient could ask you about it using the patient portal. Using this feature lets you to keep that appointment open for a patient who either has an illness that requires a diagnosis and prescription in-person or one who needs immediate medical care.
Fewer Medical Errors
When receptionists and other staff in a medical office take phone calls, they have to relay the information that patients give them to the nurses and physicians. This sometimes leads to misinterpretations of patient needs and medical issues. Being able to receive written messages from patients allows you and your staff to correctly interpret what your patients need so that you’re well informed and can make the appropriate decisions.
Additionally, telemedicine tools within patient portals, which we just discussed, can help lead to more effective patient medications the first time around. Before a prescription is filled, the software can automatically check for any drug-to-drug or drug-to-allergy interactions which may occur based on a patient’s diagnosis and current medications.
Using a patient portal allows you to send appointment and payment reminders as well as schedule yearly checkups with your patients. This helps save time by automating the scheduling process and making sure patients are kept in the loop.
Portals can also be used to provide your patients with billing information, consent forms, educational materials and test results to keep them informed on their health. Sending them educational materials and test results can save time spent explaining every little detail during an office visit. In addition, this allows you to see more patients every day. If your patients have pressing questions, they can ask for more details via the patient portal or wait until their next visit.
A Mixed Bag
While many people have used a patient portal by now, the reviews are mixed at best. As you can see in the section above, there are plenty of benefits that patient portals provide. But unfortunately, their potential has yet to be fully harnessed.
Some patient portals are hard to access, badly designed, cumbersome to navigate and limited in utility. These downfalls make it more likely for patients to pick up the phone and call their provider for a simple issue, negating the benefits. And when it comes to your staff and physicians, subpar patient portals can take up time and resources that aren’t usually billable.
Emerging Trends Impacting Patient Portal Usage
If patient portals are a mixed bag, why should the patient portal receive greater consideration in the EHR, EMR and practice management selection processes? Because when you look at current industry trends, patient portals are well on their way to improving. Some of these trends include:
First and foremost, as healthcare moves from fee-for-service to value-based care, providers will have further incentive to improve the patient experience, track compliance and manage costs. In addition to improving patient health and facilitating wellness, patient portals have the potential to increase information accuracy, reduce duplication and cut down on time spent on patient records, payments and prescription refills.
The future of health and medicine points to the primacy of data. The volume of big data is expected to increase more quickly in healthcare than any other industry — including manufacturing and financial services — with a projected growth rate of 36% through the year 2025. Additionally, patient portals can yield a trove of information not captured in a doctor’s visit or clinical interaction. This could result in better population health management, as well as a better ability to track patient engagement and improve adherence to treatment plans.
Patient as Consumer
Patient portals will grow in popularity as patients evolve into healthcare consumers. Increasingly, they want better, faster access to their health information, and to be involved in the medical decision-making process. Patient portals are a natural extension of the trend to go online to select a provider or research medical conditions and treatments. They’re going to expect a positive user experience, rewarding those who do with their loyalty.
The growing use of mobile apps, smartphones and wearable devices has increased the demand for patient portals. This has increased the monitoring and uploading of information related to patient health and physical activity. In turn, this has made patients more conscious of their health, leading to more self-management and data exchange with patient portals.
How to Evaluate Patient Portal Software Usability
Given the patient portal’s potential and growing importance, how should you evaluate the best portal for your practice or facility?
As a healthcare provider, you can select a standalone patient portal that is commonly hosted by a third-party vendor through the cloud. This approach can result in compatibility issues with your EMR and/or EHR system, requiring cooperation from the vendor(s) — often at a price.
Alternatively, you can select patient portal as part of an EHR, EMR or practice management software. The good news is that nearly all of these systems provide a patient portal component. When evaluating their product, you need to remember that patient portals are not all created equal and can differ quite drastically in functionality and usability. As such, you need to take into consideration:
The cost of patient portal software will vary, while some come along with the purchase of health IT system. Consider whether or not your solution provides training, maintenance, troubleshooting and upgrades and if they charge an extra fee or not.
Ideally, you’ll want your patient portal to be flexible (especially if you are a specialty clinic). It’s a smart idea to choose a solution with a configurable interface so it’s better suited to your specific clinic.
3. Patient Management
Does the patient portal provide the ability to refill prescriptions, monitor compliance, track patient progress, schedule/cancel appointments, pay bills, upload documents and download practice forms? While not all patient portals will offer this entire list of features, make sure to narrow down which ones are most essential for your users.
One thing to consider is how easy a prospective system makes it for physicians and patients to send and receive messages. Patients should be able to upload documents quickly without frustration.
5. Patient Access
For patients who aren’t using the software on a daily basis, it’s a good idea to consider how accessible the patient portal will be. You want logging in to be as simple and straightforward as possible as well as available through multiple devices.
6. Usability and Navigation
Think about how the experience will be for the user. It’s important to choose a system that is intuitive, user-friendly and easy to navigate. It’s also a good idea to make sure patient-accessible information, such as test results, is compiled in an understandable format. Also worth considering is whether or not the portal accounts for the visually-impaired as well as non-English speakers.
Patients should be able to view lab results and track immunizations, medications and allergies. Additionally, they should be able to access personal information, notes and medical history. Many patient portals will provide an online healthcare library consisting of educational resources that can be helpful for patients.
It’s important to make sure your solution is HIPAA-compliant to ensure privacy. You want a secure connection that can provide stored data and guard against data breaches. Make sure your solution meets confidentiality and legal requirements for minors as well.
The patient portal is evolving, gaining wider acceptance and growing in importance. Not every EHR can address all of these considerations in a manner that meets your needs. Its components are only part of the equation; the other part is you and your commitment. Will you provide training for your nurses, physicians and staff? Will you actively encourage patients to use the patient portal?
It’s clear that using a patient portal can provide several benefits for your medical practice. After accounting for these nine considerations, you should be ready to start using a patient portal. The only decision left to make is which platform you’ll actually use. Consider taking a look at our Top Medical Software Comparison to give yourself an idea of what to look for.
Do you have any questions about patient portals or what they do? How has your health organization benefited from the use of these portals? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.