Medicine and our healthcare professionals are transitioning from paper to digital in a number of different ways. In several of our previous blog posts, we covered extensive ground on EMR/EHR software, electronic medical billing, and how these digital systems influence the specialty-specific practice in its organization. In this article, I would like to delve into some of the advantages (and disadvantages) of the impact of patient portals and how they influence our healthcare industry in terms of patient care.
What exactly are medical patient portals?
A medical patient portal is defined as a secure website that provides an efficient communication channel between the physician and patient. They may slightly vary in their configurations and features, but they usually allow patients to access medical records on their doctor visits, lab results, discharge summaries, medications, immunizations, and other pertinent information.
Many patient portals offer more advanced functionalities that make it possible for patients to:
- Interact with healthcare professionals via a secure email line
- Pay medical bills
- Download and fill out patient intake forms prior to scheduled appointments
- Ask for legitimate prescription refills
- Schedule regular (non-urgent) medical visits
- Obtain educational materials
- Receive information on benefits and insurance coverage, and so on.
Physicians and their patients can tap into a patient portal for any desktop, laptop, and even mobile device with a solid internet connection.
A few different scenarios concerning patient portals in our healthcare industry
Patient portals have gained momentum just as electronic health records did in the past several years, though perhaps not in the same intensity. The American Academy of Family Physicians reports that 41% of family physicians use patient portals for patient messages, 35% use this online resource to provide health information to patients, and about 33% use it for e-prescribing and scheduling.
One family practice physician started using a patient portal about 2 ½ years ago in his medical facility located in rural Montana. One of his patients (let’s call him Michael – not his real name) has had some blood tests done two weeks prior to his yearly physical. Michael was able to access his test results on the patient portal 1 to 2 days after testing. If his test results showed any cause for concern, Michael would have done a little research and prepared for a dialogue with his doctor at the scheduled physical.
Michael utilized the patient portal anytime he had a question for his physician or nurse, needed his prescription renewed, etc. – thereby eliminating phone tag with his doctor’s office and sometimes even the need for a medical visit. In Michael’s case, response time and speed of quality care has increased tremendously since his physician encouraged him to sign up for the patient portal. His healthcare providers were consistently on the ball about sharing medical records and responding to his questions via the online portal. Further, Michael preferred the portal to the telephone because he found it extremely user-friendly.
Since the family physician practice was in a rural region, patients often had to drive up to 2 or 3 hours to see the doctor. Therefore, a patient portal would facilitate patient care and management of their medical conditions without patients having to make frequent trips to the practice.
However, not all healthcare facilities have patients who are as eager to jump onboard with patient portals. For example, a major hospital started using a patient portal in New York, where a highly diverse population speaks approximately 150 languages and dialects in the borough of Queens. Patient portals, unfortunately, are only in English, so there is a language barrier for many patients. A large number of these patients also don’t have an email address – which is needed to create a user account on a patient portal.
With that in mind, hospital administrators are taking strategic measures to increase portal participation among patients, such as getting small group of volunteers with iPads to enroll patients in portals and setting precise targets to accomplish this.
Patient portals don’t supplant core medical treatment
Similar to EMR/EHR software, patient portals should be viewed as tools that expedite and streamline traditional medical care but don’t replace it. Physicians should use discretion in what they share with patients via a patient portal. For instance, you might want to break the news of serious abnormalities found in MRIs, CAT-Scans, etc. in person as opposed to through a patient portal. Naturally, medical appointments and personal interaction is still necessary when taking important measures for the patient’s health.
Moreover, patients shouldn’t message their physicians through an online portal that they have a medical emergency at 4 a.m. For these cases, patients should go to the ER or contact their physicians directly after office hours. Ensure that your patients know this when they start engaging with the portal.
The logistics and costs associated with patient portals
The patient portal requires an investment in its organizational integration, set-up, and training of personnel in its use, not to mention the annual usage fee that often comes with it. The increase of traffic between physician(s) and patients might necessitate an addition of an employee to manage the patient portal. Thus, you should do a cost-benefit analysis on the overhead expense versus the improvement of patient care through a patient portal.
My advice: if your practice is advancing rapidly with the latest digital technologies in terms of EHR, mobile EMR applications, and telemedicine, then patient portals would fit nicely into your organizational systems and medical services for more timely and efficient medical care.