Over the last few weeks we’ve been taking a look at new and rapidly developing technologies that offer benefits to doctors and practices in the form of greater efficiency, better patient engagement and satisfaction, more secure and compliant communication, and cost savings. Today we turn to patient portals—a technology that has the potential to provide benefits in all of those categories. But what is a patient portal? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines it like this:
The patient portal is an online tool that offers patients a secure environment to perform functions like scheduling appointments, requesting refills on medications, looking at lab results and communicating with their providers in a confidential and secure manner. Unlike traditional methods of correspondence, the patient portal allows for communication without the delay of ground mail, missed phone calls or misinterpreted voice messages. Using a secure username and password, patients are granted access to the portal via the web…
A patient portal is really very similar to the student portals that many of us used in college to manage our classes, grades, assignments, etc., or the portal websites offered by most banks that allow you to manage your accounts online. A patient portal brings that secure, patient oriented, online approach to the world of medicine. So, what can you do with a patient portal?
What a Portal Offers Healthcare Providers
- The ability to send, receive and store faxes and other communications to and from the office securely
- A secure, HIPAA compliant online means of communicating with patients
- An environment for posting lab and test results for patient viewing
- A system for making billing information available and online payment possible
- A place to store forms and documents (e.g. consent forms) that is accessible to both doctor and patient
- An automated means of sending reminders to patients
- A place to provide educational information for patients
- A major step toward compliance with the meaningful use of HER technology incentive program
What a Portal Offers Patients
- Online ability to view and enter medical history, allergies, medication lists, etc.
- The ability to send messages securely, and send encrypted email to the doctor’s office
- The opportunity to complete forms and paperwork prior to an appointment
- The ability to schedule appointments and prescription refills online
- A place to find doctor approved educational information
- The ability to view billing information and pay medical bills online
- Online viewing of medical records and histories including: discharge summaries, prescription information, dates of recent doctor visits and immunizations, lab results, etc.
- Online scheduling of appointments and prescription refills requests
- The ability to check on insurance benefits and coverage before an appointment
The important thing to stress about these lists is that a patient portal unifies all of these capabilities. A patient can go to a single website and, after logging in, do all of the things mentioned above right there within an online environment personalized with his or her information. Likewise, as a health care provider, the patient portal provides you with a single, unified resource from which to view and upload/download patient records, schedule events, review visits and diagnosis, and more. Further, many of the patient portals available now will integrate with your EMR/EHR systems and your secure texting and communication systems. That ability to tie everything together, secure communication and secure electronic health records, via a hub where information can be easily accessed, edited and posted by both doctor and patient is what makes a patient portal so valuable. It really does function as a portal, a gateway, to all the various bits of information that you and your patients need to access.
Further, from the patient side of things portals greatly increase the ease with which (and thus the likelihood) of patients being involved in their healthcare. When patients can easily review and edit information on their own time they are much more likely to update out of date records, notice trends in recovery, schedule regular appointments, stay current on prescription refills, and other tasks that till now have required either a visit or, at minimum, a phone call during business hours. Being able to review lab results as they become available, schedule visits any time, and communicate easily with staff are all things that make life easier for the patient. More and more patients are going to be looking for these kinds of things when considering what practice to go to.
Turning to the future, there are two primary developments in the trajectory of patient portals that seem likely. The first is the further development of standards for integration of portal systems. As it is, there are a variety of providers out there offering patient portal solutions, but these various systems don’t necessarily link up or share data. The practical outcome is that patients end up logging into and managing their health information on multiple systems when they have multiple healthcare providers. Not only is this an inconvenience for patients, but it tends to lend itself toward incomplete or fragmented medical information.
We think that over time, whether via government regulation or market development that there will be a move toward creating standards that allow systems to integrate and share communication securely between multiple practices. How this will work is mostly speculative, but it’s conceivable that in the near future a patient will be able to log into your portal, indicate what other doctors he or she receives care from, and have his or her medical records populate and update automatically based on the most recent and complete information available. Then it’s just a matter of the patient reviewing the records and providing any further updates. Likewise, your information and any new records added by your practice would automatically be updated on the patient’s other doctors’ systems as well. Whether this is exactly the direction things go or not, integration of records across practices, and tying a patient’s health information to the person rather than to a particular practice seems to be the trend.
Another trend we think will continue to develop and expand is the use of patient portals to conduct e-visits. An e-visit is just what it sounds like: an electronic doctor’s appointment. While this isn’t a novel concept the development of patient portals has made it much more feasible. Using a patient portal the doctor and patient can both log in to their secure accounts and use video, audio, text, file sharing, or just about any other means of communication securely. While e-visits can and should never replace actual in-person visits to the doctor, they do have a place. Patients who live in rural areas, those who are elderly and don’t travel well, and those who lack reliable transportation can benefit from the ability to see a doctor via an e-visit. Likewise, certain diagnosis can be quickly and efficiently made utilizing an e-visit, the outcome of which will determine whether an in-person visit is necessary. Or consider verifying rehabilitative progress—sometimes an in-person visit might not be necessary whereas a quick video appointment that allows the doctor to see that all is well and on track could be very valuable.
So there you have it. Patient portals are proving more valuable than ever, they are a key component in demonstrating meaningful use of EHR technology (and thus of being eligible for incentives), and they are being actively developed and improved with new features being introduced all the time. Look for greater integration across platforms and dropping prices as they become even more common, and perhaps in a few years you’ll be conducting an e-visit yourself every now and then.
Here are a couple of videos demonstrating how these systems work. As usual, eQuoteMD does not endorse these particular products. We just link the videos by way of example.
This post was written by Justin Donathan.
Justin at Google+