Guest Column | September 14, 2015

6 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Saying "I Do" To A Patient Portal

Robin Wiener

By Robin Wiener, President and Founding Partner, Get Real Health

So your organization is ready to take patient engagement to the next level and invest in a patient portal? Or maybe you already have a portal and are looking to upgrade to meet current and future Meaningful Use requirements. It’s a good idea.

Studies show that, over the long term, patient portals save money, increase patient engagement, and improve health outcomes. But investing in a patient portal is a big upfront expense—and it’s often tempting to just “turn-on” your EHR’s tethered portal.

But the last thing you want to do is invest in a patient portal and then find out that it doesn’t talk to your other systems, or isn’t user friendly, or does little to actually engage patients. If you think selecting a patient portal is hard, just try untangling yourself from one that’s ineffective. You know the old saying, “Weddings are cheap; divorces are expensive?” Well, the same is true of patient portals. Before you say “I do” to a system, ask yourself these six questions to make sure you’re entering a happy marriage, instead of one fraught with disappointment.

1. Is The Patient Portal Untethered?

Be careful. Many patient portals claim to be untethered—meaning they work independently from other systems—but the reality is often a different story. There’s been a lot of focus lately, including Senate hearings, on inappropriate data blocking and sub-standard data quality and how they are hindering organizations’ ability to move forward with their patient engagement strategies.

Basically, many EHRs are putting up roadblocks that force providers to use their tethered portal. Thus, those providers that decide to use third-party untethered portals still face the challenge of EHRs’ dependency to generate C-CDAs through their own tethered portal as opposed to in the EHR itself. This is a problem because it forces providers to use tethered portals or face additional development costs and extended timelines.

This is a major setback for large healthcare systems and state HIEs that are trying to offer patients a single point of access for all of their data. So before you dive in, make sure the patient portal you select interacts with your systems without placing an undue burden on either your organization or the patients.

2. Does The Patient Portal Allow For Bidirectional Data Sharing?

A patient portal that doesn’t talk to all of the possible sources of data is limited at best—painting only a partial picture of a patient’s health status. That’s why you should make sure any patient portal you select allows for bidirectional data sharing. That means not only can you push data into the portal, but you can also retrieve data that patients have entered or uploaded from devices. This may sound like a tall order, but it’s attainable. A truly untethered system allows for the back-and-forth flow of information from all data sources—giving both the patient and provider the full, complete picture. Meaningful Use requires this, although not all patient portals provide it (at least not without increasing your burden and your costs). Your organizations may or may not be ready to ingest patient-generated health data, so it is important that you chose a PHR that can source the data so that your doctors don’t have to worry about it getting mixed in with clinical data.

3. Is It Interactive And User Friendly?

Patient portals that patients don’t use because the features aren’t helpful or, worse yet, difficult to use have a name: useless. If your organization invests in one of these portals, you’ll find yourself scratching your heads, wondering why your patient engagement numbers aren’t rising, when the answer is simply that patients can’t figure out how to use it, or they don’t really see the point. A patient portal should, at a minimum have an intuitive user experience, provide the patient’s latest health data in a readable format, and include secure messaging with the provider. But a patient portal that takes patient engagement seriously will go even further and offer an experience tailored to their health concerns such as patient directed care plans, condition-specific health journals (ODLs and ADLs), alerts and reminders, and personalized health recommendations, education and assessments.

In addition, it’s critical that the data is presented in a straightforward, easy-to-digest format. Simply giving patients data through PDFs won’t cut it. How can they compare one lab test to another if the data is in a static document? A good patient portal will allow patients to easily see lab results and other medical information in a chart that shows data points in and out of range—giving them a much better understanding of what they need to do to improve their health.

In short, your patient portal should allow for patients to manage most aspects of their care with the click of button. And it should be something even patients who aren’t tech-savvy to operate easily.

4. Is It Mobile?

Sixty percent of Internet usage is on mobile devices. If your portal isn’t mobile friendly or not available as a native mobile app, you might as well pack up and go home. Patients are consumers and mobile access is no longer a bonus; it’s an expectation. Make sure your patient portal meets patients where they are: on their phones.

5. Is It Customizable?

One size pretty much never fits all. This is especially true for patient portals. A healthcare organization should be able to customize a patient portal to meet its patient population’s specific needs. Most portals, particularly EHRs, only offer off-the-shelf installation, with little or no ability to customize beyond simply slapping your name and logo on it. This is a mistake. Every patient population is different, and a patient portal needs to take into account those differences. In fact, a truly customizable patient portal will allow healthcare organizations to create multiple portals for different populations while still giving the user a unified experience.

Furthermore, a customizable patient portal is an excellent way to increase brand awareness and build your brand. We all know that patients have choices when it comes to choosing a hospital, clinic or provider (in fact, just recently, hospitals began to be included on Yelp), so you don’t want to pass up on the opportunity to build continued brand loyalty as patients come back to your portal over time. The portal is another marketing tool to keep your organization at the top of mind for a patient.

6. Is The Experience Unique?

The patient portal should be unique for each patient. A 25-year-old woman doesn’t need information on prostate exams. Similarly, a 65-year-old man likely doesn’t need a mammogram. The patient portal should allow for recommendations and educational content to be tailored to their specific medical conditions, age and/or sex. Once again, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to medical care. Make sure your patient portal doesn’t try to squeeze a square peg into a round hole. It will frustrate patients and do more to disengage than engage them.

If you can answer “yes” to all six of these questions, then you’ve likely have found a patient portal that will be a true asset to your organization: engaging patients, reducing costs and improving health outcomes. And you can rest easy knowing that the patient portal you’re walking down the aisle with is one worth committing to.