Making patient portals patient-friendly

Patient portals can create barriers to successful use but can also offer benefits to patients. Three simple steps can improve the patient experience.

Patient portals are a double-edged sword. Many patients enjoy the ability to look up information about their last visit or e-mail a question to their doctor without getting an automatic attendant, being put on hold, or having to leave a message. For the practice staff, a well-designed portal can cut back significantly on phone calls and often office visits.

There are many barriers to successful use of patient portals, including many on the practice side such as cost, physician and staff resistance, technical obstacles, and more. However, the patient portal helps engage your patients in their care (which has better outcomes) and makes them more satisfied with their care (because they are part of the team). Your practice gets the added benefit of meeting the meaningful use measure. Below are some tips to make it easier for your patients to use your portal.

Make it worthwhile. If patients can contact your office via the portal with a question and get a reply back the same day, then that is more valuable than leaving a voice mail and playing phone tag. If they can see the lab results, ask a simple question, or request a prescription refill, they won't need to call the office and wait while someone tracks down the information or passes the message on to the physician. Even if the answer is to schedule an appointment, at least the patient is clear on what they need to do. Some patients may also like to know that messages sent through the portal become part of their record, rather than misplaced or forgotten.

Meaningful Use Stage 2, Core Objective #7 requires that the practice “Provide patients the ability to view online, download and transmit their health information,” and Core Objective #17 requires using “... secure electronic messaging to communicate with patients on relevant health information.” If using your portal provides useful information and the ability to take the information to another clinician, then patients will use it and the practice will get credit for those measures.

Make it easy. Ideally, your patients should be able to choose their own user name and password. Many systems assign a password that isn't logical to the patients. When patients have multiple doctors using multiple systems, they are intimidated by how many different user names and passwords they have to remember, particularly if frequent password changes are required. If patients only need to go into the system once or twice a year, and each time they do it takes them 10 minutes to remember how to get in and then they have to change their password, they'll stop using it.

Another way to make using the portal easy is to include a link to the site every time you send a notification. Patients often get a notification that they have a message from their doctor, but the automatically generated message doesn't even say who is sending out the notification. Including a link would at least take them to the right place, and hopefully they will be able to remember how to access your portal. Print a business card or flyer with the practice name, the portal URL, and instructions on how to access their account.

Get the Blue Button added to your EHR. The Blue Button lets Medicare patients (or their caregivers) go online and access their records from hospitals, physician offices, laboratories, pharmacies, and anywhere else that bills Medicare. Because many patients don't know or can't remember what was done to them last week, last month, or last year, the Blue Button allows them to see their personal health record, which can be used to provide patients with care based on accurate information.

For more information on how patient portals can improve care and how to incorporate them into office work flows, go online. For more information about using the Blue Button in your practice, go online.