What are the Benefits of Patient Portals?

Since the inception of electronic health records (EHR) in 2009, the American medical practice has been transitioning to the cloud. One of the latest iterations of our digitization comes in the form of the patient portal, an online hub designed to keep healthcare consumers in the treatment loop. Like the EHR, patient portals have been mandated by federal regulatory guidelines. Failing to comply with these rules will result in declining government reimbursement for your practice.

Stethoscope and Laptop Computer. Laptop computers and other kinds of mobile devices and communications technologies are of increasing importance in the delivery of health care. Photographer Daniel Sone Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

What Are the Benefits of Patient Portals?

  • What are the key features of a patient portal?
  • Why are patient portals beneficial?
  • What are the challenges of patient portals?
  • How do patient portals increase patient engagement?
  • How do patient portals improve healthcare workflows?
  • What’s next for patient portals?

Why the push toward patient portals? Are there benefits for patients and the doctors that are required to set up these digital tools? In this article, we’ll explore the benefits, drawbacks, and features of the healthcare patient portal.

What Are the Key Features of a Patient Portal?

Patient portals are secure online website that allows patients 24/7 access to personal health information (PHI).

A patient portal is an online hub for care coordination. Under stage 2 of Meaningful Use for EHR regulations, the government required that healthcare providers offer the means to electronically exchange information securely with their patients. The requirement is interpreted to mean that patients should be able to access information online and that doctors and other clinical professionals can communicate with patients securely. A patient portal meets these basic requirements, although most vendors who create, install, and manage these tools offer many other features to benefit your practice.

There is plenty of debate on the best and most useful features of the average patient portal. Typically, we see the following features as a standard part of the end-user interface on these tools:

  • Appointment scheduling
  • Discharge instructions
  • Downloadable/transmissible data
  • Easy updating of patient information (demographic data)
  • Educational materials for patients and caregivers
  • HIPAA-compliant messaging, typically through email, text, or a chat feature
  • Immunizations
  • Interoperability with the EHR
  • Lists of medications and allergies
  • Medical history and lab test results
  • New patient registration
  • Prescription renewals linked to a pharmacy of choice
  • Online bill payment
  • Patient reminders for appointments or treatments
  • Summaries of clinical treatments

While these portals can be considered a highly engaging and useful tool for patients, a 2019 article by the American Medical Association (AMA) reported, “What portals don’t have is a majority of patients using them.”

Our lack of engagement with healthcare’s digital offerings changed quickly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Patient Engagement HIT reports, “The pandemic has served as a key use case for the patient portal in care management.” In tandem with the increase in telemedicine during clinic shutdowns and quarantine, patient engagement portal usage increased. Wellness apps, remote patient monitoring, secure messaging, virtual triage, and other digital screening and health tools all became the lifeline to care that we needed during a global pandemic.

Contrast this to the AMA’s 2019 report, which showed 63% of insured adults who made a healthcare visit in the prior 12 months never used their provider’s healthcare portal. Another 40% of patients said they weren’t even offered the service.

During COVID, patients quickly learned that, with internet access, they could access their PHI and make appointments from any digital device via a patient portal. It is this convenience that is a key benefit of these tools. However, it took a global pandemic to push through patient reluctance and distrust of patient portals to get consumers to even try them.

Today, many consumers and providers are finally realizing that patient portals have a viable place in the future of healthcare delivery. What is it about patient portals that make them so beneficial to both the doctor and the patient?

Why Are Patient Portals Beneficial?

There is evidence that patient portals improve health, which is of course the primary goal of healthcare providers. The most recent studies show patient portals are linked to shorter hospital stays as well as improved health outcomes. As the usage of these technologies grows, we’re seeing increasing data that proves the worth of these tools.

One big benefit that we discovered during COVID was that patient portals were a safe way for consumers of healthcare services to schedule tests and vaccinations and access their test results. Patient Engagement HIT says, “This was a natural move, especially from an efficiency standpoint, and it introduced a whole new population of people to patient portal technology.”

Beyond just getting test results, the patient portal helped people infected with COVID to receive instruction on quarantine protocols, basically, answering the “what’s next?” question without requiring a doctor visit where the virus could spread to others.

Generally, we understand the following benefits justify the investment in these tools:

For Patients

  • Access health information whenever it’s convenient for you
  • Better communication
  • Better health outcomes
  • Better two-way communication with your doctor
  • Easier prescription refills
  • Improved access to educational materials
  • Increased care coordination
  • Increased engagement
  • Self-service appointment requests
  • Speed up delivery of lab test results
  • Stores all health information in one place

For Providers

  • Better bottom line
  • Better doctor-patient relationships
  • Improved accuracy of patient data
  • Improved patient outcomes and satisfaction
  • Increased communication between office and patients
  • Increased co-pay collections
  • Increased focus on patient care over admin tasks
  • Increased patient engagement
  • Optimized office workflows
  • Reduced no-shows
  • Satisfies meaningful use standards
  • Saves time
  • Streamlined administrative tasks

Medical concept on virtual screen. Healthcare. Online medical consultation and health check, EMR, EHR.

What Are the Challenges of Patient Portals?

No technology is perfect and patient portals are no exception. Initially, the platforms were geared with features that were more attractive to hospitals. Over time, they improved to become more user-friendly and effective for the patients themselves.

However, talking about the benefits of patient portals makes an assumption that every healthcare consumer has access to the internet. We’ve seen this assumption at work in rural communities with telemedicine. There are areas of the country that lack the broadband necessary to use virtual doctor visits.

Interoperability is a moving target, as well. From a technology perspective, most patient portals can integrate with EHRs and other types of software. But, we should consider that there are several patient portals out there created and maintained by third-party vendors.

Say a patient uses a patient portal to schedule a COVID test at a CVS. The patient wants his or her primary care doctor to receive the test results; however, that provider uses a different patient portal. How does the data flow between third-party vendors who are, in effect, competitors? The same issue impacts healthcare data flowing between a testing site to a patient portal and then to an EHR.

This issue is ironic at best and frustrating at worst, and it’s not just the patient portal and EHR that struggle to play nicely together. One executive was quoted in Patient Engagement HIT as saying, “This is an unfortunate fact of healthcare today, most universal way of exchanging data is the fax machine.”

Additionally, the security of PHI is always a concern in the digital space. This technology features a variety of safeguards to protect data; indeed, HIPAA requirements mandate many security features for PHI. However, at the midpoint of 2019, 25 million patient records were breached. We should note these numbers were not tied strictly to patient portals but to the exchange of any PHI online. Nevertheless, it illustrates the point that healthcare vendors must always do more to protect sensitive patient data.

How Do Patient Portals Increase Patient Engagement?

Patient Engagement HIT says “the patient portal is something like the jack of all trades in patient engagement technology.” It’s true; you can access several data points on these portals, from discharge summaries, health histories, immunization records, physician notes—and more. For patients, it’s the first time in history that their records are accessible online whenever they want to access them. It’s a communication window that also may allow secure direct messaging with their clinicians or online scheduling and bill payment.

While this is certainly convenient for the average patient, consider those clients with one or more chronic conditions that require ongoing management. When coupled with population healthcare initiatives that include remote monitoring and patient education campaigns, the patient portal can become a window into the long-term health of these individuals. One Geisinger study showed patients had better medication adherence because they had access to doctor’s notes via the portal hub and were more engaged in their care.

A patient portal also allows doctors that same window, allowing them a much better handle on the health of these patients. Doctors can use the data captured in the portal to make earlier interventions to improve the lives and health of the people they serve.

When patients “own” their health information, they engage in their pursuit of wellness by thoroughly and knowledgeably interacting with their doctor. There’s data that even shows patient portals build patient loyalty. One study found that after the first visit to a primary care practice, 80% of patients returned to the practice when that practice had a patient portal. In contrast, practices without portal technology retained only 67% of these patients.

This type of retention seems to last long term, as well; 30% of portal users make at least one visit to a primary care doctor within a three-year period, while 19% of non-portal users follow the same pattern. Patient Engagement HIT says, “Because portal features like secure messaging facilitate strong bongs between patients and providers, these tools make patients want to return to a certain provider.”

How Do Patient Portals Improve Healthcare Workflows?

The benefits of patient portals extend beyond the convenience of accessing patient data 24/7. There are benefits that extend to improved healthcare workflows. For the patients, it makes it easier to pay and schedule appointments. This benefit extends to providers in several ways:

  • Front desk: If patients are self-scheduling, handling prescription refills, and record requests online, it reduces call volume which increases the practice’s ability to respond to more urgent patient inquiries. Freeing your front desk from mundane tasks allows them to spend more time greeting, welcoming, and caring for patients.
  • Back office: With a positive correlation between portal usage and patient billing and collections, simply put, a practice benefits from a patient portal by allowing easy online payment. It also reduces the difficult conversations about copays or medical debt that both back and front office staff have to endure.
  • Clinical providers: Having bi-directional secure messaging keeps communication flowing between patient and provider, which in turn improves the relationship. Patients that use the portal receive vital educational information online and come to their visits more engaged and informed. Studies correlate better health outcomes with this type of technology.

Medicine doctor using modern computer diagnose virtual electronic medical record of patient on interface.Digital healthcare and network on modern virtual screen, DNA medical technology

What’s Next for Patient Portals?

Like all technology, the patient portal is evolving. We’ve already seen patient portals evolve from limited use functionality designed for hospital systems to more user-friendly patient-centric online tools.

Today, we are increasingly using Internet of Things (IoT) devices to monitor our health remotely. From remote sensors to follow-up on recently discharged cardiovascular patients to healthcare apps that track exercise, there are digital devices dispersed throughout the healthcare experience. Watch for patient portals to increasingly engage with these remote devices, capturing more data from these remote sensors and storing them as PHI. This will allow doctors an increasingly accurate picture of patient health.

Also look for patient portals to improve the end-user mobile health experience. Portals are improving in this area all the time in direct correlation to our increasing reliance on mobile technologies.

Medical Economics predicts that the patient portals of the future will offer increased functionality, a better user experience, and increasing connection at all points of the healthcare continuum. They suggest future patient portals will:

  • Automate actions like scheduling or prescription requests with one click
  • Increase connection between patients and providers through improved support and interaction online
  • Offer an increasing number of resources such as support groups for specific health concerns
  • Organize PHI from multiple devices (EHRs, insurance carriers, wearable devices) in one online hub

Healthcare IT News sums up the future of the online patient portal by calling it, “the gateway to healthcare’s future.” As more patients grow comfortable with these tools, and as the technology improves, it seems as if this prediction is an accurate one.


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