The healthcare industry has been working toward greater communication between patients and providers for years.

It has been pretty well established that patients who are more involved in their healthcare have better outcomes. Experts have been recommending greater patient engagement, and now the federal government is requiring it.

To be eligible for Meaningful Use Stage 2, providers are going to have to use patient portals. Guidelines for the program require providers to have more than 5% of their patients send an electronic message to a physician (which can be done through portals) and view, download, or transmit to another party their health information during the reporting period.

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Matthew Douglass, co-founder and vice president of platform at Practice Fusion, said providers should be embracing this patient engagement tool as much as possible. “The most crucial tool in a doctor’s 21st century toolbelt (for 2-way communication with the patient) is the online patient portal,” Douglass said. “This empowers the patient and her caregivers with access to her most recent medical information and provides an ability for the physician, patient, and care team to communicate securely.”

Why use portals?

Aside from meeting meaningful use standards, portals may be able to help improve patient outcomes. In a January 2014 study, Kaiser Permanente researchers found that patients with diabetes who got refills of statin medications exclusively through an online portal reduced medication use and increased medication adherence and cholesterol. Patients in the study regularly used an average of 6 medications.

Portals can also be timesavers for a physician’s office. For instance, if a portal allows patients to refill medications or make appointments, that means 2 fewer kinds of calls coming into the practice every day.

And even when it doesn’t literally save work, portals can still help manage time. Instead of taking calls during the day, physicians can allow patients to email and then get to them when they have time to devote to the task.