Helping Patients Get The Most From Patient Portals

While patient portals can't replace an in-office visit, they have many benefits: They encourage patients to view test results and health records and can facilitate an ongoing doctor-patient dialogue. They can reduce paperwork by serving as online billing and payment centers. They can also help practices meet meaningful use Stage 2 requirements, which state that providers must have "at least five percent of their patients using an online patient portal" to get incentive payments. 

But just because a practice creates a patient portal doesn’t mean that patients will get the most from it – or even use it at all.

In a random survey of 1,540 U.S. patients about their experience with patient portals, Software Advice, a software selection company, found the following:

  • One-third of patients didn’t know if they had access to a patient portal.
  • The most-used patient portal features are appointment scheduling and checking prescriptions/refills.
  • Viewing test results was the second-most requested portal feature.
  • 21% of respondents wanted to be able to use a portal to view and pay bills online. 
  • The top drawbacks of portals cited by patients are unresponsive staff (34%) and poor interfaces (33%).



Medical practices can help patients use their portals to the fullest with the following tips:

  • Improve communication to patients that they have access to your portal. Doctors or office staff can verbally remind patients to visit the portal and email patients a link to the portal. They can also distribute printed cards with the portal’s Web address and instructions on how to use it.
  • Use the portal to provide patient education. Even if patients are using these portals to schedule appointments, pay bills, etc., this is not a replacement for providing education to patients about their health and any conditions they may have. Consider making this type of content accessible on the portal.
  • Use an online scheduling feature. For patients, online scheduling can provide a more streamlined experience than calling on the phone. Medical practices also benefit from online scheduling. It saves staff time, and automatically generated appointment reminders can help significantly reduce no-show rates. 
  • Make test results accessible on the portal. When Kaiser Permanente added a feature to its portal allowing patients to view test results, registration jumped from 9% to 27%. If you’re concerned that the use of medical jargon will only cause confusion, only 11% of respondents said it would frustrate them most when using a portal. 
  • Allow patients to view and pay medical bills online. A recent study by Intuit found that 77% of patients would be willing to pay medical bills online if the option was available to them.
  • Use a feature that lets patients check prescriptions and request refills on the portal. This may have positive outcomes for patients. A study conducted by researchers at Kaiser Permanente found that diabetic patients who used an online portal to request refills were more likely to take their medication.
  • Minimize the use of the portal for email exchanges between patients and staff. Exchanging emails with staff is often cited as one the most common uses of patient portals, but only 10% of respondents expressed a desire for it. This low number may be because of prior failed attempts at communication; for example, patients may have sent messages to staff via a portal in the past that were ignored.Patients disliked automatic emails, with 22% of respondents citing this as the most annoying portal feature. 

Simply making a portal available to patients will not ensure that they use it. Portals must be engaging, user friendly and should be integrated into clinical encounters so the care team can use it to educate, communicate, and support self-care and decision making.

3 comments about "Helping Patients Get The Most From Patient Portals".
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  1. Joe Blewitt from Epion Health, Inc., October 25, 2014 at 9:32 a.m.

    Terrrific article Daniella! Your concise and accurate description of the most impactful ways to leverage patient portals is right on target. Portals can deliver significant value to providers and patients....if they are positioned properly and have the right tools in place.

  2. Leslie Nolen from The Radial Group, October 31, 2014 at 11:29 p.m.

    Do folks want to email their providers? Of course. Do they want to use a separate patient portal to do so, versus their normal email interface? Heck no. It's a pain for patients to have to log in to a patient portal simply to send a provider email, and then get a "reply" -- in their day-to-day email interface, be that Outlook or Gmail -- giving them zero actual info and merely directing them to go to the web and log into the portal to review the provider's response.

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, November 21, 2014 at 10:56 p.m.

    * Do not allow any kinds of advertisements on that portal no matter what. * Security, real tight IT security so the information cannot be tracked for any purpose outside of the office. Shared results with coordinating doctors must have the same rules. Data collected and used cannot be tracked back to the patient and the patient's contact info is completely sealed.

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