Practice Notes

Six strategies to improve your patient portal

by Adam Paul

For medical groups seeking to achieve meaningful use, granting patients electronic access to health information through a “portal” is a high priority. But there are many challenges associated with patient portal implementation, from getting patients to sign up to ensuring physicians actually use the portal.

In a recent webconference, Ernie Hood, Senior Research Director for the IT Strategy Council, outlined six components of successful portal use.

Know why you’re using the portal

Be clear about what you hope to accomplish from portal use. Is it simply about meeting meaningful use requirements, or do you have broader goals, such as reducing costs or enhancing patient engagement?

Hood: “I always say that if the answer is more than one of those choices, you really need to think about how they rank, because inevitably you are going to have trade-offs. You need to be clear about what you want to accomplish before you start.”

Select a portal leader who prioritizes patient needs

It helps to have one person, rather than a committee, in charge of portal strategy to ensure timely completion of tasks. This person should truly understand what patients want and need from the technology.

IT leaders may focus too much on technical challenges, while physicians may undervalue patient convenience. Instead, select a leader accustomed to dealing with patients as customers, such as a Chief Marketing Officer.

Turn physicians into portal advocates

While physicians may not be ideal for portal oversight, they are hugely important in driving patient use. Physician attitude toward the portal is the primary indicator of how likely patients are to adopt the technology.

One group printed out notepads for physicians to write their patients a “prescription” for portal enrollment. If your group expects significant physician skepticism, a portal pilot can build advocates, with early adopters helping to convince their peers of the tool’s clinical value.

Leverage every patient contact to promote the portal

Beyond exam room interactions, there are many other opportunities for medical groups to promote the portal. Think creatively.

Hood: “Get rid of your on-hold music and play a message that says something like ‘if you were online your message would be answered by now.'"

Paper mailings, such as laboratory results or bills, are also a good way to let patients know that the portal offers quicker access to information.

Incorporate features that maximize patient convenience

To attract patients, make sure your portal has the features they care about most. Proxy access for parents of minor patients or caregivers of older patients is one particularly powerful feature. Online prescription refill requests, patient education material, bill pay, and scheduling also tend to rank highly.

Hood: “These are things the physician would not necessarily see as increasing quality of care but which the patient sees as important because it makes it easier to access your services."

Focus on convenience over privacy

Privacy is, and should be, a very important consideration when implementing a patient portal. Yet many physicians are surprisingly unconcerned about potential privacy breaches.

Hood: “Apple and Amazon are setting privacy expectations for your patients." Patients are accustomed to trading privacy risks for convenience, “and even organizations that have experienced breaches…were able to recover because the convenience factor was high.”

Next, Check Out These Resources

Research note: Why Kaiser Permanente's Patient Portal Application really works

On-demand webconferences: The Patient Portal—Major Decisions 

Blog post: (Nearly) everyone is managing well patients wrong

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Expert Q&A: EMR Optimization for Medical Groups

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