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Helping caregivers, consumers understand patient portals

With patient engagement expected to play a key role in the meaningful use stage 2 final rule, patient portals could provide robust opportunities for the provider-patient dynamic, said speakers at the Physicians Practice webinar, “Patient portals and your medical practice.”

One of the presentation’s speakers, Marisa Torrieri, associate editor at Physicians Practice, discussed the ins and outs of patient portals regarding functionality, patient data access, vendor relationships and how portals can aid patients and physicians alike.

Despite the fact that many health care vendors offer patient portals, it’s fair to ask what makes an efficient portal. The most important factor is ease of use for providers, patients and staff, said Torrieri, adding that portals must provide seamless log in, improve day to day functions, transmit lab results and offer a better bill collection rate.

A patient portal should not be seen as a “new version of email, because email is not a secure endpoint,” said Torrieri. That said, most portals offer similar features; providers are able to leave memos in a patient’s account to inform them new information is available.

Furthermore, the type of viewable information within a portal was addressed in the presentation given the sensitive nature of particular medical results. For example, patients can view test results, pay bills, check appointment times, manage prescriptions and gain information about chronic diseases. To that end, if there is a result with a “negative connotation,” providers will generally call the patient due to sensitivity, and not reveal it on the portal.

In fact, one listener asked Torrieri during the question and answer portion of the presentation about patients accessing the portal without the benefit of context. In other words, if there’s no direct conversation between the patient and provider, how will the patient interpret information? While this is merely situational, it could provide a barrier to increased patient portal usage among patients who feel a lack of interpersonal communication.

Torreiri’s answer was that health care organizations — and the providers that access the portal — can have a level of content control, but need to check with their vendor to see if it’s feasible to filter sensitive information.The relationship between the organization and patient portal vendor cannot be overlooked. There needs to be collaboration between the two to answer pertinent questions, such as:

– Will the portal’s interface connect to your electronic health record (EHR) system?

– Can patients access outgoing information from the EHR within the patient portal?

– Is the portal HIPAA compliant?

– What features will engage patients?

– Is the portal customizable?

Although technology alone won’t improve patient engagement, patient portals provide one option for patients and providers to interact and get on the same page.

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