Setting one up

If an office doesn’t have a patient portal, the best time to get one is when setting up electronic medical records (EMR). The easiest portals to set up are those owned and integrated by EMR vendors, Douglass said. The ease and cost of patient portal integration can be aspects to include in EMR vendor selection criteria.

The best way to determine what components to have in the portal is to understand what you want to accomplish with it. Setting one up to comply with the meaningful use requirements will simply require that patients can read and transfer health information to third parties.


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Douglass said that must-have features include partial patient chart view access that includes lab and test results, medication lists, immunization lists, diagnoses, and medication allergies. A portal should also include a visit summary and secure patient messaging.

Beyond that, a portal may be used to increase patient engagement or save time by enabling patients to make medication refill requests, schedule appointments, obtain online statements, pay bills, and flag their chart if they see inaccurate information.

Offices can also use the portal as a direct line to patients, said Angela Dangelo, patient portal specialist with the consulting firm Beacon Partners. Dangelo said it can be used not only to send individual messages to patients, but could be used to blast messages like “It’s time to get a flu shot” to groups of patients.

Staffing

The CMS set the bar relatively low for patient engagement on a portal at 5%. Most providers who put the time and energy into building a portal, however, will want more than this. Some key staffing measures can aid in that goal.

“To get the most out of the portal, Dangelo recommends ensuring an appropriate governance structure is in place to develop an implementation strategy and define goals, in addition to providing oversight and decision-making during the implementation process.
 

Equally important is the development of a well-trained and experienced technical support team. This could be part of an organization’s existing support team that is specifically trained on the portal and related systems or an external group brought in specifically to fill this role. “I have seen organizations that outsource all of their patient portal support needs,” she said. “It depends on what works for your organization.” Either way, the support team should consist of individuals highly skilled in both customer service excellence and patient portal support.

Physicians should also be involved in the process from a marketing standpoint. Dangelo said studies have shown that more than one-third of patients don’t know if their office even has a portal. That is particularly problematic for ones that do. Physicians can play a huge role in encouraging patient engagement through a portal and recommending that patients use it. A great prescription could be, “Go home, take two aspirin and sign up for the portal,” Dangelo said.

Be creative

Patient portals are truly a new way to think about care and communication with patients. One way to get patients to think about using them is to leverage the traditional patient contact points to promote the tool.

Aside from physicians encouraging patients to use the tool, office staff can put a message on the phone messaging system so patients hear it when waiting on the line. A reminder can be put on bills sent out to patients. Douglas recommends creating a “placeholder” patient and walking patients through the enrollment steps while they are in the office.

“You have to think about your marketing strategy,” Dangelo said. “You can put a portal out there and it can be great, but if patients don’t know it’s there, it’s meaningless.”