Expert: Patient Portals Brim With Unmet Potential

Patient portals have become commonplace, but a healthcare consultant says most practices aren't using the technology to its full potential.

The term “patient portal” would be an interesting subject for a game of word association.

It’s an example of government mandates, a sometimes-confusing piece of software, and the source of excited grins and confused looks, depending on the patient. But for Rosemarie Nelson, MS, a New York-based healthcare consultant, patient portals conjure another word: Potential.

Nelson led a session dubbed “Pump Up Your Patient Portal” Tuesday at the Medical Group Management Association’s annual meeting in Nashville. She argues physicians and medical group managers should stop associating the portals with the government mandate that sparked many practices to enter the portal game, and instead think about the various ways portals can make their offices run more efficiently and boost patient satisfaction.

To start with, Nelson argues that physicians should utilize patient portals as information dissemination tools. She said in many ways healthcare is about communication.

“We provide information,” she said. “You’re thinking, but the patient is being educated. You’re helping them understand something. You’re giving information about treatment options.”

If a patient never receives the needed information, forgets it, or wants to double-check something, they’re left to pick up the phone and call the doctor’s office. Nelson said medical practices can reduce such calls by posting condition-specific information on their patient portals, in addition to robust Frequently Asked Questions pages.

Nelson said portals can also be used to collect patient information prior to a visit. Many practices are already doing this, but Nelson said many others still rely on sending patient intake forms through the mail or having the patient fill out the forms while waiting in the waiting room.

In addition to saving time, Nelson argued that pre-appointment online form completion leads to more accurate patient information, since patients are less anxious sitting at home days before an appointment than they are waiting in the waiting room for a nurse to call their name. She said such systems can be used to validate insurance ahead of a visit, and even collect co-pays. Further, she said patients are more likely to show up for a visit if they’ve already filled out the forms.

“You get a brand new patient and they do all this information online, no-show rates go down. They have invested,” she said.

Of course, a piece of technology is only valuable if patients use it. This can be a challenge for multiple reasons. For one, Nelson said patients are sometimes reticent to give out email addresses, fearing they could end up receiving marketing messages. Instead, Nelson said a physician or nurse — rather than the receptionist – should bring up the idea.

“The ideal time to introduce it is in the exam room,” she said.

For instance, a physician could note that the patient can receive test results sooner by accessing them in the patient portal.

Another way to get patients to sign up is to have kiosks or tablet computers available in the lobby so patients can register while they wait. Nelson said practices should consider using a staffer or intern to assist patients signing up in the waiting room.

Nelson said portals have the potential to boost co-pay collections significantly. One audience member said her practice saw co-pay collections jump 25% in one year thanks to their portal.

As for patients who aren’t computer literate, Nelson said portals need to be “cell phone simple,” and physicians should consider getting an elderly patient’s authorized agent to use the portal if the patient is unwilling or unable. While older patients today might be slow to adopt patient portal technology, Nelson said that won’t be the case for very long.

“This trend will not go down, folks,” she said. “As soon as we turn 60, we don’t suddenly lose our Internet privileges.”