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Examining patient portal functionality

Last week I tried to use my primary care physician’s patient portal for the first time. The server was down, so I couldn’t log in. I was disappointed. In hindsight, though, it was actually for the best. I fell victim to a rootkit attack last Wednesday night, so it’s entirely possible that some miscreant could have ended up with my medical identity.

Once IT had restored my machine to its original, rootkit-free settings, I gave the patient portal another shot. This time, I logged in without a problem. After poking around for a few minutes, here’s a quick rundown of the major features of this patient portal. (This particular one is made by eClinicalWorks LLC.)

  • Patients are reminded, both by the vendor and the physician’s practice, that online communications should not be used in emergency situations and, though secure, are nonetheless subject to certain security risks.
  • Users can view a schedule of upcoming appointments as well as their most recent statement.
  • Users have the option to request prescription renewals and referrals.
  • The Personal Health Record (PHR) View tab provides a look at one’s allergies, medications, family history, immunizations and most recent lab results.

Overall, my experience is consistent with the recent analysis of Chilmark Research’s John Moore – the patient portal is nice, but it’s not “an integral part of the care process.”

Being able to request referrals and prescription renewals is handy, since not all patient portals offer that. On the other hand, I can’t do anything within the PHR View, and it’s heavy on unexplained medical jargon – I, for example, have no idea what a “TSH 3rd Gen Sensitive-LGH” lab test is. (Then again, this could be useful for patients with chronic conditions who need to track both the frequency and the results of lab tests and, as a result, would be better acquainted with such terminology.)

It isn’t necessarily my physician’s fault that the patient portal is subpar. For starters, it’s quite new – the bulk of the information was entered in late March. In addition, it suffers from the Catch-22 of patient portals – usability improvements aren’t worth the investment unless there are more users, but there won’t be more users until usability improves. Unfortunately, if Google Inc. and Microsoft continue to say that patient portals are not profitable, that investment may never come.

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