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Healthcare Practice Strategies - Spring 2015 - Patient Engagement: This Is the Year to Make Patient Portals Work

May 13, 2015

If you met EHR Stage 1 MeaningfulUse requirements, you probably already have your patient portal up and running. But 2015 is not the year for resting on your laurels. In fact, you'll need to not only ensure that you have a functioning portal, but also that patients are using it.

Specifically, Stage 2 Meaningful Use core objectives require the following:

1. Secure messaging — At least 5 percent of unique patients must engage their provider through secure electronic messaging within the full-year reporting period. This sounds ominous, but it really only entails patients sending an e-mail that they initiate or in response to one that you've sent.

2. Online records — At least 5 percent of patients must view, download or transmit their health information through the portal. Simply put, this means they must actually log in to the portal and see what's there. This could be as simple as viewing their health information or downloading something — a clinical summary, results of a cholesterol check or a list of current medications, for example.

A Case of the Shakes

The thought of having their Medicare reimbursement docked is making some providers very nervous. In essence, it is the first time they are not in direct control of meeting core Meaningful Use objectives. Providers are essentially at the mercy of patients deciding to use the portal or not.

The good news is that a dose of marketing savvy may be all that's needed. First and foremost, you'll need to give patients a reason to visit your portal. This starts with providing the services they find valuable — the ability to schedule appointments, request a referral or refill prescriptions online.

You might also include patient downloads, links to health resources and interactive tools (a BMI calculator, for example). Compare this to a static portal that amounts to little more than an online Rolodex card with a phone number, hours of operations and a few downloadable "new patient" forms.

Other patient-friendly options include making online test results available, allowing patients to pay bills online, and sending targeted reminders to particular patient populations (HbA1c and eye exam reminders to diabetes patients, for example).

Make the Case

In study after study, the single most important factor in portal engagement is simply having the provider ask the patient to register, log in and use it. This starts with selling the benefits — the ability to check lab results online, not having to come into the office every time they have a minor question, etc.

Explain the portal in terms patients understand. For instance, the website suggests providers might say, "The portal is just a secure e-mail system that we can use to communicate. You can send me a message and it goes right into your chart, so I have all of your information at hand when I read it and respond." Be sure to remind them that if they use it and don't like it, they don't have to continue using it.

The website also suggests setting expectations with patients, explaining what kind of questions are appropriate, and how and when providers will use the messaging — for example, "I'll be placing your test results on the portal in 2-3 days."

Once patients are onboard, providers will need to do their part and follow through by actively communicating results, responding to patient messages, and better engaging patients in their healthcare through the online portal tools.

Engage During Visits

Ensure that patients hear about the portal from multiple sources during each clinical visit. This could include providing talking points for front office staff to encourage patient registration and use, posting materials about the portal and distributing fliers and mailers.

Mention your new patient portal on your office voice mail and encourage patients to ask the staff about setting it up.

Print messaging on the bottom of patient summaries when they leave.

Have staff assist patients with the portal registration process. Here, a registration kiosk in the office can be a good tool.

Follow up with patients who have not registered for the portal by phone and e-mail.*

In the end, Meaningful Use requirements for patient portals are not a set-it-and-forget-it proposition. 

*Source: The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC)

Healthcare Practice Strategies - Spring 2015

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