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    Emerging features make more out of patient portals

    Leading-edge healthcare providers are adding more functions to their patient portals, leveraging the technology to improve the efficiency of their own practices as well as patient outcomes, according to health IT experts.

    “We’re really looking at how we can use it to [help] patients become part of their care plan collaboratively with their care team and also simultaneously add convenience and make it like one-stop shopping,” said Lindsay Altimare, MPA, director of Lehigh Valley Physician Group Operations in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

    The patients at this physicians group can use the portal for typical interactions, such as accessing lab results. But they also can use it for more advanced activities not offered at most other physician offices, said Michael Sheinberg, MD, medical director of information at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

    Patients can upload personal health information, such as blood sugar readings, send secure messages to their physicians, and get alerts about test results, he said.

    They can use the portals to schedule well visits and soon will be able to schedule sick visits, too. They can use the portal, including the mobile version, for video and e-visits 24/7 with providers, who can access the patients’ charts while taking care of the patients in this virtual setting.

    Patients can use the portal to check in before a visit, updating demographic information and making payments in advance of their appointments.

    And patients can use the Fast Pass feature; they can add their names to wait lists for specialists and busy providers and the system will alert them to available appointments that they can accept with just a click.

    Many physicians aren’t yet comfortable enabling such advanced functions yet because they feel they’re ceding too much control to the patients, said Peter Winkelstein, MD, MS, MBA, FAAP, the executive director of the University at Buffalo Institute for Healthcare Informatics, chief medical informatics officer of UBMD Physicians’ Group, and chief medical informatics officer of healthcare provider Kaleida Health.

    But Winkelstein said physicians will face more pressure to add such features in the near future. For example, he pointed to efforts by the nonprofit group OpenNotes, which advocates for making healthcare more transparent by encouraging providers to share medical notes with patients, as prompting a growing number of physicians to make such activities available on their portals.

    He said he also expects more physicians will offer telehealth visits via their portals as well as will offer a way for patients to submit medical inquires in the upcoming months and years.

    In the future doctors will also use their portals to better manage patients as customers, similar to how businesses in other industries use customer relationship management software to engage their clients, make sure their satisfied and encourage repeat business, Winkelstein added.

    “This is pretty new in the healthcare field,” he said.

    There are obstacles to leveraging patient portals in such advanced ways, said Thomas A. Mason, MD, chief medical officer in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).

    He pointed out that patients complain they have too many portals, as they typically have one for each physician they see. They also complain that accessing information via portals can often be challenging.

    Meanwhile, he said “many doctors see the patient portal as an additional burden on their already heavy workload.” But Mason also said portals offering much more in the future as technology improvements overcome the existing challenges.

    “As more providers and patients see the benefits of electronic access to health information the functionalities in patient portals and apps will improve and expand to include new features such as telemedicine/televisits and collection of patient generated health data,” he said.

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