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    Have patient portals lived up to their potential?

    Patient portal technology is far from enjoying universal use, despite promises that the technology can improve the doctor-patient experience.

    The reasons for the technology’s lackluster performance are complex. 

    Consider the experiences of Michael L. Munger, MD. He has one-third of his patients signed up to use the patient portal he implemented nearly two years ago, but only a portion of those patients actually use it. They log in to the portal to schedule appointments, pay bills, request prescription refills and view medical information such as test results—all of which saves his staff time.

    Munger wants to add more functions to the portal and convince more patients to use it, although he’s not optimistic about getting everyone onboard.

    “I’d love to see 100% of the patients use it. I don’t think we will, but I think we’ll get more [to sign up],” says Munger, who practices primary care at St. Luke’s Medical Group in Overland Park, Kansas.

    Patient portals are part of the drive to bring more technology to the front lines of healthcare. Advocates of the technology say it helps physicians run their practices more efficiently by shifting some patient communication to online resources and off themselves and their staff. But health IT experts and physicians say the healthcare industry has been slower in adopting such digital tools than have consumers and some other industries.

    As a result, physicians are seeing only some of the benefits promised by patient portals. And more importantly, if they want to maximize the advantages that this technology offers, they’ll have to do a better job promoting and using it.

    “Simply turning on the portal and not using any of its tools makes you a physician that patients aren’t going to want to go to. Physicians need to rethink how they want to engage patients if they want to effectively utilize this resource,” says Michael McCoy, MD, chief executive officer of the consulting firm Physician Technology Services Inc. 

    McCoy gives the healthcare sector’s use of patient portals a grade of “D,” saying too many physicians either don’t use them or fail to optimize their portal’s features to streamline services, increase efficiencies and better engage patients. 

    Most physicians who use portal technology have enabled only several rudimentary functions. Generally, they’re using them to provide information on common medical problems and conditions; facilitate some prescription refills; allow access to medical records; and share test results. At some practices, patients also can use portals to make appointments and communicate with practice staff.

    A November 2015 survey by the Council of Accountable Physician Practices and the Bipartisan Policy Center quantifies this limited use. Only 28% of the 5,000 adults surveyed have doctors who offer patient portals they can use to view medical information; another 34% indicated they want such
    access. 

    Amelia Coleman, M.Ed., director of the practice management consulting group at MBA HealthGroup, says she sees physicians and patients using very few of the capabilities offered by portal technology.

    “Right now, in general, the use of portals is passive,” she says. “Most of the patients I’ve talked to who are using portals are using them to get information after visits. They’re viewing bills or lab results or information sent by their doctor after the visit. I see less examples of patients using it to schedule visits or to send messages.” 

    For example, Coleman notes that many practices still have patients fill out questionnaires on paper rather than doing so electronically via the portal, even when that  capability is available. She gives the use of portal technology a 4 overall  on a 10-point scale.

     

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