While only a small number of doctors currently use patient portals to interact and share information with patients, that’s likely to change very soon, thanks to Meaningful Use Stage 2. Patient portals — secure websites that give patients 24-hour access to personal health information including health history, prescriptions, and patient education materials — are often included as part of electronic health records (EHRs). And many patient portals are provider-based, such as those offered by Kaiser Permanente and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Since qualifying for government EHR incentives requires that eligible professionals ensure that at least five percent of patients use patient portals, the number of doctors implementing them is likely to skyrocket. The market for patient portal technology is expected grow 221 percent over the next five years, to $898 million in 2017, according to new analysis from Frost & Sullivan. Here’s what you need to know about getting the most out of patient portals – for you and your patients.

What patient portals have to offer
Even if practices choose not to pursue meaningful use, an EHR has practice management benefits like keeping clinical records and generating patient billing statements. And patient portals also have benefits beyond government incentives, such as relieving the administrative burden of answering routine patient questions and requests.

Patient portals can also help your practice stay competitive. As patients become more accustomed to doing things online – banking, shopping, researching – they are going to expect those services from their doctors as well. If the practice across town has a patient portal that allows people to request prescription refills and email their doctor and yours doesn’t, you might lose patients to them.

Why don’t more patients use portals?
Simply having a patient portal is not enough, however, to achieve meaningful use or to truly engage patients. Even the Mayo Clinic struggled to meet Stage 2 requirements when it introduced a web-based patient portal. Patients signed up, but they didn’t use it. What was the problem? Simply making the services available wasn’t enough. And you can’t force patients to do something if they’re not interested. There’s got to be something in it for them.

Part of the issue is convenience. Patients want to be able to interact with the portal when and how they want — no clunky interfaces, no complicated login processes. And customization is key, too. A patient wants a relevant, individualized experience and information, not to feel like a number. And that requires providing more than the low-quality content found on most patient portals.

“After all, cognitive involvement is a prerequisite of meaningful engagement and it’s tough to be interested and spend time thinking about information that is not in context …  you don’t understand, find boring, completely inaccurate, or irrelevant,” writes Steve Wilkins, MPH, in “If you build a patient portal, why won’t they come?

How do you make portals work for you and your patients?
If building a portal itself isn’t enough, what can you do to make a patient portal work for your practice and your patients? Start with providing high-quality, relevant patient education materials that are easy to understand. Internet-based programs that interface with EHRs can put state-of-the-art medical animations at doctors’ fingertips. Play videos for a patient immediately, walking them through their condition or treatment and any questions they have. And you can also make the videos available on your patient portal for them to access later with their families or caregivers.

Patient portals can and do work when done properly – just look at early-adopter Kaiser Permanente, which rolled out its patient portal between 2004 and 2007. By 2006, the number of website registrations had jumped from nine percent to 27 percent of Kaiser’s membership. Kaiser concluded that the portal features most important to members were: connectivity with their care teams, the ability to view key components of their medical records and conduct clinical transactions online, and the ability to obtain information that helped them make better health decisions.

Patient portals and other technologies are not going to improve health care alone. But they can be valuable tools when used by doctors who take the extra step to truly engage their patients.

To find out more about patient portals and how our internet-based patient education platform, Echo, can be integrated with your practice’s technology, contact us today.