Just a couple years ago, many healthcare providers cited artificial intelligence and machine learning as key areas of focus for their organizations. Now, the emphasis has shifted to patient engagement. More than half of healthcare chief information officers (CIOs) report that patient engagement technology is a top priority, especially with the continuing transition to patient-centered care. 

Many healthcare providers design and implement patient portals to increase patient engagement because these tools give patients convenient, 24-hour access to personal health information from anywhere with an Internet connection. By using a secure username and password, patients can perform a variety of functions, from requesting prescription refills and making payments to securely messaging their physician and scheduling appointments, all from their smartphone, tablet or other mobile device. 

Patients also have the ability through portal technology to view physician appointment summaries and notes, view test results and educational materials, download and complete forms, request referrals and access their medical history. Probably the most utilized feature of these portals is patient-provider communication, which gives patients more control over their healthcare and promotes better patient-physician relationships. 

Patient Portal Perks

Patient portals have demonstrated benefit by improving adherence to medications and providing patient-provider communication. They may reduce in-person and emergency department visits, facilitate patient discovery of errors in electronic medical records (EMRs) and reduce the cost of care. Patient portals may be especially helpful for individuals with chronic or long-term health problems. 

For healthcare providers, components of patient portals enable them to improve patient care safety, improve efficiency and engagement, educate their patients and prepare them for future care encounters, reduce the need for phone conversations and other administrative tasks, quickly deliver test results, gauge the health of their chronically ill populations and improve health outcomes. Research has shown that patients who establish a relationship with their healthcare providers via a patient portal are more likely to return to that provider. 

As noted by the American Medical Association, patient portals give provider care teams the capabilities to communicate on a more flexible schedule, respond to patient questions more efficiently and effectively, minimize the risk of miscommunication and reduce the need for follow-up questions by providing centralized and consistent after-visit information to patients. Financially, patient portal technology assists healthcare providers in enhancing their revenue cycle management by enabling patients to pay their medical bills online, resulting in faster payment in fuller amounts. 

Challenges to Patient Access of Portals

As with most any healthcare technology, there are challenges to getting patients to utilize patient portals. The top five reasons patients skip using patient portals are:

  • Preference to speak directly with physician—70%
  • No need to use the portal—57%
  • No online medical record—32%
  • No internet access—25%
  • Privacy concerns—22% 

Some patients aren’t aware of what type of options are available on portals offered by their healthcare providers, and others cite the sometimes-cumbersome multiple step registration process. A lot of patients register for a portal but don’t complete the process once they leave the provider’s office. 

Not every patient portal is the same. Poor portal designs cause usability difficulties for some patients. A small number of patient portals only allow patients to view demographic and medical history data, mitigating the benefits of real-time data. Organizational factors are likely the most crucial in determining whether or how patient portals are implemented, and contributing factors that impact efficacy and sustained use of patient portals include provider endorsement, health literacy, usability and utility. 

There are a variety of sociodemographic characteristics that correspond with low rates of patient portal adoption. Although portal use is higher among patients with greater disease severity and individuals with disabilities, studies have shown that Black patients, older patients, less educated patients and patients whose primary insurance is Medicaid were less likely to use portals than white patients, younger patients and those with other forms of insurance. Portal use also has been found to be higher among white patients than other racial groups and female patients than male patients. 

Methods for Increasing Enrollment in Patient Portals 

Studies have consistently shown that patient portal usage has increased over time, although the overall adoption rate is modest. However, more healthcare organizations report widespread patient portal use than they did in 2020. Some experts have pointed to the pandemic as a key reason for increased patient portal utilization. 

Provider endorsement and continued engagement with the patient portal have been identified as important factors in a patient’s decision to adopt and continue to use patient portal functions to achieve and sustain anticipated positive outcomes. By identifying populations with lower adoption rates, providers can target their engagement strategies to encourage portal adoption. 

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), physicians should emphasize to office staff how patient portals can improve patient experience and outcomes. One study found that practices achieved more success with their portals when office employees, and not just clinicians, helped explain the benefits of the portal to patients and assist with troubleshooting when required. Overall, it’s essential for healthcare providers to ensure positive staff attitudes toward patient portals through effective staff training, technical support and the incorporation of staff needs in portal design and workflows. 

Medical groups, hospitals and health systems should use the following methods for encouraging enrollment in patient portals:

  • Include information about the patient portal on your organization’s website.
  • Provide patients with an enrollment link before the initial visit to create a new account.
  • Encourage team members to mention the patient portal when patients call to schedule appointments.
  • Put up flyers in the waiting room and exam rooms with information about accessing and using the patient portal.
  • Provide access to technological devices that allow patients to sign up for the patient portal in the waiting room.
  • Include information on how to create and use a patient portal account on printed after-visit summaries and communications sent to patients with test results.
  • Send patients an enrollment invitation to access their lab results after a visit.
  • Consider a mass enrollment for patients not yet active on the portal, and allow an “opt out” option. 

At Providertech, we offer scalable outreach platforms that use automated workflows to send text, voice and email messages, leading to improved outcomes and enhanced patient engagement. Some providers use this technology to direct and facilitate patients to access their patient portals, whereas others employ options to create easier access to specified patient data points. Check out some of our recent blogs on patient engagement:

How EHR Workflows are Enabling Healthcare Organizations to Improve Patient Engagement for Lung Cancer Screenings

Telehealth: Offering Enhanced Care for Our Veterans

How a Community Health Partnership Is Addressing Health Disparities Amidst COVID-19

Achieving Value-based Care Through Population Health and Patient Engagement

Leveraging Behavior Economics to Improve Patient Engagement Strategies