Patient portals are becoming increasingly important tools in the healthcare system, for both providers and patients. As electronic health records (EHRs) take the place of traditional paper records, many people are using portals as a way to access their records. But, using patient portals simply as a place for patients to simply view their medical records is a big mistake. Patient portals can be an extremely valuable tool for both patients and providers, but only if the portals have the features that actually make them useful.
Where many providers go wrong with patient portals is using them as nothing more than a place for patients to view their EHRs. When equipped with the right features, patient portals can be a great engagement tool that empowers patients to get more involved with their own care. Below are just some of the most common benefits of patient portal use.
Patient Engagement and Empowerment
Patient engagement is a hot topic these days, and for good reason. Getting patients actively involved with their care contributes to lower rates of readmission and better health outcomes, especially when it comes to post-discharge home care.
Patient Engagement: Follow Up Care
Patient portals can serve as a resource for patients to read up on their condition and view any home care directives at a moment’s notice. Patients cannot adequately adhere to their follow up care when they do not have the specific directions in front of them. Oftentimes, this information is lost when it is simply communicated verbally or written down on a piece of paper. By including follow up care directives within the patient portal, patients are much more likely to stick to their follow up care because they can have the information right in front of them, on demand.
One of the most important features of a patient portal related to patient engagement is the ability to request medication refills online. Making the process so easy for patients means they are much more likely to stick to their medication management routine and actually refill prescriptions when they are needed, plus the portal can send them online reminders when that time comes. In a study of diabetes patients, patients who refilled their statin prescriptions online showed higher adherence to medication than those who did not use the online portal (Sarkar et al., 2014). While this study focused on diabetes patients, it is reasonable to believe that the same is true for people living with other chronic conditions. This population, people with chronic conditions, can arguably benefit the most from comprehensive patient portals because their long term care has many components that can be hard to keep track of.
Patient Engagement: Patient Forms and Feedback
Patient portals can be so much more than just an educational space. One of the most useful features of a patient portal is the ability for patients to fill out paperwork online in the comfort of their own home, rather than when arriving or leaving the office.
Pre-appointment paperwork asking about topics such as medical history are much more likely to be filled out with more detail when the patient can do them on their own time. Additionally, valuable patient feedback gathered after the appointment will be much more detailed and useful when patients can take the time to really think about their responses, rather than rushing to do it when they are eager to get out of the door following their appointment.
All of these features give patients more power when it comes to their care. When they can independently check their follow up care directives or request prescription refills without having to go through the process of reaching out to a provider, they have a new sense of autonomy. This feeling of empowerment can make patients more active and involved with their care, which leads to better outcomes. Sometimes having the right tools can make all the difference for patients in whether or not they feel capable of taking an active role in their care.
Increased Follow Up Appointment Adherence
Once patients walk out of the hospital doors, providers are relatively powerless when it comes to ensuring that they adhere to follow up care. One of the most essential components of care is actually showing up to follow up appointments. Unfortunately many patients fail to do just that.
Patient portals are an effective tool for reducing incidence of follow up appointment no-shows. Many patient portals have the option to schedule appointments online, which greatly simplifies the process and can make patients feel more eager to do so. However, it is in the hands of providers and other medical personnel to actually respond to the appointment requests. Neglecting to confirm or respond to appointment requests in the portal can lead to disuse, and even discontinuation of follow up care.
When used correctly on both ends, the ability to schedule appointments online benefits both providers and patients. Eliminating the need to call the medical office and wait for an answer saves time for both parties, and it simplifies the process when patients can see availability calendars and other tools right in front of them. Plus, online features like appointment reminders by text message decreases the risk of patients simply forgetting about their appointments.
Increased Patient and Provider Communication
Even with detailed information contained within patient portals, sometimes patients will need to ask their medical providers a question. But, the hassle of calling may deter some patients from reaching out when they have questions. The best patient portals have features that allow patients to submit questions online, sometimes even in an instant messaging chat format.
This feature streamlines the process of patients asking questions, and again can lead to better follow up care. Simplifying the processes that lead to the best health outcomes should be the top priority of all providers and what they look to get out of their patient portals.
Beyond asking a question or two, the ease of asking questions via a patient portal can lead to strengthened patient-provider relations, which can boost engagement and lead to long-term improved health outcomes. When patients feel more comfortable with their providers, they are more likely to engage in their care and be sure that they are sticking to all recommendations, plus they can more easily ask for help when problems do arise.
Getting the Most Out of Your Patient Portal
Of course, providers will not get these benefits from their patient portals if they do not have the best features, or if patients do not know how to use them.
The first step to reaping maximum benefits from a patient portal is simply ensuring patients know that it exists. Take the time to educate patients about the portal and all of its features. This is especially important for patients with lower health literacy, who may have a more difficult time understanding how to use patient portals. Still, regardless of health literacy level, personnel should walk patients through the portal and make sure they understand how to utilize all of the available features.
Portals should also have a space for patients to leave their feedback about what they like and dislike about the portals, or what features they would like to see. It is hard for providers to fully grasp what features will best benefit the patients without being in the patient's shoes themselves. Leaving the floor open for patients to leave suggestions, and actually using that information, means that the portal can have optimal value for patients, and thus for providers.
Patient portals are a great tool for medical personnel, but only when patients actually use them. If providers want to see all of the benefits described above occur with their own patient portals, take the time to educate patients and listen to their feedback about the portals. The initial time investment is more than worth it.
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