Patient portals are websites designed to give patients greater access to their health data online. Exactly what a portal offers depends on the vendor and specific provider, but their original purpose was to give patients easy access to their medical records including lab results, physician notes, health histories, discharge summaries, and immunizations.

Portal adoption rates have been high for several years now. A 2016 report from the American Hospital Association showed that 92 percent of patients were able to view their medical records online. That number is similar today. A recent Stat Poll found that 90 percent of healthcare organizations offer portal access to their patients.

The real benefit of portals is patient engagement, and portals are evolving to be more than a one-way street where patients can access their data. Many now offer features like bi-directional messaging, prescription refill requests, and online appointment booking. These functions facilitate a host of benefits for patients and providers.

3 benefits of patient portals

1) Better patient-physician relationships

Portals give patients more opportunities to connect with their provider, making the patient-physician relationship closer than ever. Perhaps the most common example is secure messaging. As early as 2014 about half of hospitals had the ability to secure message with their patients. In recent years, more healthcare professionals are taking advantage of this capability and connecting with their patients via online portals.

This type of bi-directional messaging between patient and provider can boost patient engagement and satisfaction. Patients engaged in an ongoing conversation with their provider are more likely to take ownership over their own wellness. These conversations can help educate patients and make them more informed for future care encounters.

Ongoing conversations through secure messaging can also create strong bonds between patients and providers, making patients want to return to the same provider for future care. Building patient loyalty has obvious benefits for providers, while improving consistency of care and making the patient feel more comfortable and valued.

2) Improving clinical outcomes

In addition to strengthening patient-provider relationships, portals can make tasks like requesting prescription refills and referrals more convenient. This ease of access leads to greater patient compliance and improved clinical outcomes.

The effect of patient portals on clinical outcomes is especially strong when it comes to managing chronic diseases like diabetes. Research has found that portals can improve outcomes via better care coordination, patient education, and patient-provider communication. Similarly, studies have found that patients with access to doctors’ notes had higher rates of medication adherence because they were more engaged in their treatment plans.

3) Optimizing medical office workflow

Portals give patients electronic access to tasks that would have previously required assistance from the medical office team. When patients have online access, staff can spend less time scheduling appointments, writing down refill needs, and answering questions about referrals. Ultimately that means a more efficient medical office workflow.

Limits of patient portals

Patient portals are already widely implemented with obvious benefits. However, there is a difference between portal adoption and portal use.

According to a 2017 government report, while 90 percent of providers offer patient portal access just one-third of patients actually access their health information. In short, the existence of portals doesn’t directly translate to patient engagement.

Of course not all patients need to regularly access their health data, especially those who are young and generally healthy. But there is a clear consensus that portals are lagging behind consumer desires for digital engagement. Portals are still geared towards enabling patients to access their health information. They do not yet offer a comprehensive hub where patients can engage in their own care.

As an article from PatientEngagementHIT summarizes, “Organizations are exploring how to leverage additional patient engagement technologies and features to supplement the capabilities of patient portals and create seamless, holistic experiences for users.” That means adding new features that add value for patients and get them to login in the first place.

Key growth areas include online self-scheduling, bill payment, and chronic disease management tools. But in 2019, many providers still don’t offer these tools. For example, polls show that 65 percent of patients would prefer to pay their bills online, while few organizations offer this function. Similarly, patients are starting to choose providers based on their digital appointment scheduling offerings.

Overall, portals are evolving to better meet patient needs in the digital era. As the incentives grow and more patients choose to login, there will be more opportunities for portals to benefit both patients and providers.

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