I spent a good chunk of the weekend outdoors, enjoying some quality lakefront time while spring is here. Despite the copious pollen, it was still much more enjoyable than when summer hits and you’re debating whether the humidity or the mosquitoes are more oppressive. Still, when I got home, my tent needed a full wash to get the pollen out, and my quick air out took a little more time than planned. Waiting for it to dry before I could finish packing up all my camping gear gave me an opportunity to complete the Continuing Medical Education evaluations that are required for me to get credit from my recent conference attendance, and to try to wade through all the email that accumulated while I was away last week.
I also spent some time today with my extended family, who wanted me to explain what it really is that I do for work. They know I don’t see patients in person right now, but think I see patients on Zoom, which is good enough for me. They don’t really get what a CMIO does though, or what clinical informatics is, and sometimes trying to explain that is difficult. I try to give examples of the kinds of projects I work on, but I think even those are sometimes hard for people to really understand.
The one thing that usually resonates is when I talk about coaching physicians how to better use computers when they’re seeing patients. That understanding is usually accompanied by one of two stories. The most common story used to be that their doctor spends too much time looking at the computer and not at them. That’s becoming less common, which is a good thing. Now I hear a lot more stories about people’s experiences messaging their physicians through patient portals, which is good as far as portal adoption.
I actually had a conversation about that topic a couple of weeks ago with an EHR colleague. We were talking about the ways that different healthcare organizations approach the idea of encouraging patients to sign up for their patient portals. Some organizations bend over backwards to get patients to sign up. They may have staff in common areas who use a kiosk to try to get patients enrolled, or they may initiate an activation process during the rooming activities in the exam room. If organizations have highly developed process for portal utilization, they benefit from having more patients activated. This could be a financial benefit through reduction in paper billing statements, reduction in the time it takes for patients to pay bills, or reduction in staff costs due to telephone volumes for patient messages and appointment scheduling.
Other organizations however are less aggressive, and it feels like they are just hoping patients will stumble upon the patient portal and decide to sign up. A third group of organizations seems to just want to make it easy for the patients to do the workflows that a patient portal brings to the table but doesn’t necessarily want to require patients to sign up for an account.
Although I totally understand wanting to make things easy for patients, I think that approach will ultimately undermine patient adoption. Why? Because I see it in other industries. I know plenty of people who will go online every month and pay their utility bills, but won’t take the time to complete the process of signing up for automatic bill pay. Having a streamlined monthly process reinforces the customer’s action and they’re willing to do it again. But they’re not making the logical leap to understand that they could spend five minutes once and never have to go to the website again, versus spending two minutes each month for the rest of their lives paying that bill.
Not to mention that by not starting to fully embrace the use of the patient portal, they’re not able to use features such as those that might help with health promotion and disease management. They may also be missing out on the bells and whistles of being a registered user, such as being able to serve as a proxy or delegate for the accounts of children or elderly relatives, which generally aren’t available in the more freestanding workflows. Every EHR vendor handles these workflows in a slightly different way, but I see quite a few moving in the direction of “portal-lite” functionality to try to streamline patient access.
One hospital administrator I spoke with a few months ago tried to justify the fact that his organization isn’t spending any money on portal enrollment or activation efforts by saying that “our patients won’t use it because of XYZ reason, so we don’t want to waste the effort.” I think he is sorely mistaken for a couple of different reasons. First, many of the reasons that are often cited are not necessarily valid. People often think that older patients won’t be willing to use patient portals and for those tech-savvy elders, nothing is farther than the truth. If a patient is following their children or grandchildren on social media, in my experience, they are likely to be willing to use a patient portal, especially if it makes communication with their physician faster or easier.
People also think that not everyone has access to a computer or smartphone, and although that’s true, the percentage of patients who have access to those devices is climbing. Looking at 2018 data from the US Census Bureau, 92% of houses had at least one type of computer and 85% had broadband internet. Smartphones were present in 84% of households where 78% had desktops or laptops and 63% had tablets.
When thinking about the access argument, the truth is this. You don’t need to have 100% adoption to have a successful patient portal initiative. Even if you can get a percentage of your patients to enroll, and a percentage of those enrollees become active patient portal users, everyone can benefit. Patients can take advantage of self-scheduling workflows, which frees up office or call center staff. They can receive test results quicker, which often reduces phone call volumes as patients try to follow up on results. They can access visit notes, patient education materials, and care plans, which can not only reduce phone calls, but might also contribute to improved clinical outcomes.
With all that potential, it’s difficult to understand why organizations are slow to push for patient portal adoption.
What is your organization’s current patient portal strategy? Leave a comment or email me.
Email Dr. Jayne.