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Patient portals work for family practices, journal study concludes

“By directly engaging patients to use a portal and supporting practices to integrate use into care, primary care practices can match or potentially surpass the usage rates achieved by large health systems.”

That conclusion was reached by 11 medical researchers whose new report on the success of patient portals – a critical feature of the meaningful use program – was published in the “Annals of Family Medicine.”

The team, led by Alex Krist, M.D., a faculty member at the Fairfax Family Medicine Center in Virginia, found after a three-year study ending in 2013 that practices that pursued thoughtful, pro-active strategies to get patients to use the portal achieved a patient use rate of 25.6%, with the rate increasing 1% a month over 31 months.

Other findings included:

–        That 23.5% of portal users signed up within one day of their office visit

–        Older patients and patients with two or more chronic conditions were more likely to use portals

–        Blacks and Hispanics were less likely to use portals

–        Usage by practice varied from 22.1% to 27.9% depending on how effectively the practices promoted the portals

Eight primary care practices in Virginia participated in the study, with each using a series of learning collaboratives with practice “champions” and redesigning workflow patterns to integrate use of portals in patient care, according to the study abstract.

All used an Allscripts EHR system and two separate patient portal systems, a commercial portal that that only provided secure patient messaging, and one plugging into EHR data.

The two-portal model came about because the practices were not successful in integrating the EHR with the portal, so the practices had to field two concurrent portals, including one created for the study, “MyPreventativeCare,” developed by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Under meaningful use stage 2, portals should incorporate secure patient-doctor messaging.

The salient point the researchers discovered was that small and medium-sized primary care practices can engage patients to use portals by incorporating promotion into routine care.

“This approach appears to be more effective than mailing invitations and to match the results of more elaborate promotion efforts by large integrated health systems,” the report says.

Some medium-sized and large hospital systems trying to attest to the stage 2 portal measure have tried elaborate promotions such as contests with giveaways such as free vacations.

The study authors noted that VCU holds the intellectual property rights to its portal, but although the university and developers are entitled to the system’s revenue, the portal tested in the study is a noncommercial product and no revenues have been generated other than grant funding.

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