Deploying a Patient Portal Isn’t Enough to Engage Them

March 15, 2015
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patient portals

patient portals

Much has been made of the push to better engage patients, but little has been spent on examining exactly what patients want. Despite the requirements set by the EHR Incentive Program, simply deploying a patient portal isn’t enough to engender real, sustainable engagement. Recently TechnologyAdvice surveyed 409 adult Americans about their digital health services preferences. I really like the surveys they run so I reached out to Zach Watson, the healthcare IT content manager at TechnologyAdvice, to see what health providers, entrepreneurs, and innovators could learn from the results. If the technology doesn’t line up with a need in the market, then it’s not going to be used very often so I asked Zach to tell us how to create a good product/market fit. Here’s what Zach said:

Meaningful Use Isn’t the Only Reason to Implement a Patient Portal

Although the criteria for qualifying for Meaningful Use reimbursements may have initially drawn providers to implement a patient portal, it shouldn’t be the only motivation to do so. When asked if the availability of digital services like online bill pay and scheduling were important when choosing a physician, 60.8 percent said that they were either important or somewhat important.

These results line up with the characteristics of the modern consumer who values self-service capabilities above most other resources. This paradigm shift is affecting a range of service-heavy industries, as salespeople and customer service representatives find out that customers would rather handle things on their own.

Consumers aren’t so different when it comes to the administrative portion of their health care. When asked which services were most important, patients ranked online appointment scheduling, online bill pay, and online viewing of healthcare records are the most desirable services.

All three of these services directly relate to convenience and all three are standard patient portal features. The increasing number of patients that want these types of services could help finally make the business case for the patient portal as a means of attracting, and retaining patients for primary care practices.

Patients Don’t Know What Physicians Offer

Despite the significant demand for these types of services, only a small portion of patients reported that their physicians offered these types of services. 27.8 percent of patients confirmed that they could view their test results online, while a slim 17.7 percent told us they could pay their medical bill online. Online appointment scheduling fell in the middle with of the two with 19.7 percent.

Cursory observation may indicate a lack of technology adoption. But even if patient portal adoption has yet to reach critical mass (like EHR adoption), it’s unlikely that adoption rates are below 20 percent. Providers failing to communicate the availability and benefits of these services is a much more likely scenario.

Given the choice, physicians would likely exclusively focus on discussing a patient’s health and treatment at the point of care — and rightly so — but if the physician chooses not to inform the patient about her practice’s online services, then someone from the staff should be charged with the task.

Convinced that they’ll mar their reputation as a scientist and medical professional, physicians can be notoriously wary about marketing their services. However, if a staffer or nurser simply frames the online services in the right way, patients will likely appreciate the information and use the services.

To better establish themselves as true partners for their customers, software vendors should create explanatory content that walks doctors and other medical professionals through best practices for marketing their patient portal. Whether it’s social media best practices or display ads in the waiting room, providers need educational tools for marketing the capabilities of their practice.

Inform the Right Patients

As you may expect, there is a divide among patients about the value of patient portals and their services. Our survey found that 44.2 percent of patients 65 and older didn’t care if their provider offered online services or not. Only 23.5 percent of 25-34 year olds said the same.

This data isn’t revolutionary, but when used correctly it can be informative. Under increasing pressure for face to face interactions with patients, providers should hedge their bets by discussing their portal services with patients who would be mostly likely to use them.

Older patients are less likely to use these services which makes them less likely to appreciate conversations discussing them. This may or may not be purely out of apathy, because access still plays a larger role in this context, but for providers looking to optimize their time, younger patients should be a more receptive — and if you’re trying to qualify for Meaningful Use, more active — audience.

Coupled with other research on the subject, our survey indicates that physicians should be worried not only on how effective they are at healing patients, but also how intuitively their patients can access healthcare services. A functioning, usable online presence that offers information and access to services is no longer a luxury: it’s becoming a standard.

Vendor Opportunities

Software vendors should take note that the modern physician’s practice needs multiple systems to streamline administrative processes, collect data, and record documentation. It’s not all about the EHR. This underscores an opportunity for solutions providers to mimic other business technology companies and provide a suite of applications that meet all the needs of independent practices — from patient portals, to EHR, to practice management and billing software, even to patient relationship management.

patient portal / shutterstock