Patient portal use has been steadily increasing for almost a decade, but the portals themselves remain underutilized.
According to data from the Health Information National Trends Survey, roughly six in 10 individuals were offered a patient portal in 2020, a 17-percent increase since 2014. Almost 40 percent of people actually accessed them in 2020, however, a 13-percent increase from 2014.
Clearly, patients aren’t completely happy with the current state of portals. When we surveyed more than 300 consumers about the digital tools they use to connect with healthcare providers, one in six said their patient portal was outdated or inoperable.
This is why so many patient portals need to be updated, optimized and sometimes totally reimagined. Below are four features those new portals need to have.
Appointment Scheduling and Management
Having the ability to schedule and manage appointments is incredibly important to patients. A 2020 study by Experian Health found 78 percent of people wanted to schedule their own appointments whenever they liked using their own devices.
Appointment scheduling is the No. 1 feature Scott Andrews, general manager of health systems at Kyruus, recommends healthcare providers add to their digital offering. “Displaying real-time availability in search gives consumers the priority information they’re seeking, and that allows them to select the most convenient choice for care,” he says.
Don’t stop at appointment scheduling, though. Appointment reminders are just as important — text message reminders, in particular.
Patients prefer text messages to emails and phone calls, says Jonathan Tornetta, founder of Meddkit. They’re also a cheaper alternative to appointment cards and letters, he adds, with the potential to save as much as $125,000 per provider per year. Further, the regulations surrounding text message reminders are far less stringent than marketing messaging.
Interoperability and Data Access
Patients want to be in control of who sees their data. That makes the interoperability of health records a critical feature for any effective patient portal or patient app.
Some portals already allow patients to share health records with other providers or family members, says Anuja Vaidya, a senior editor at Xtelligent Media. “But there is still work to be done in this arena. A study published in 2020 shows that among 69 hospitals that provided proxy accounts, only 13 offered controls that enabled patients to restrict the types of information their proxies could see.”
By improving interoperability, healthcare providers will be empowering their patients to manage their health as they do their finances, says Don Rucker, MD. “This requires using modern computing standards and APIs that give patients access to their health information and give them the ability to use the tools they want to shop for and coordinate their own care on their smartphones.”
Providers shouldn’t shy away from making data access as broad as possible, insists Jonathan Kaufmann, CMIO at Bayhealth Medical Center. “Our organization shares over 35,000 notes a month,” he says. “Patients viewed roughly 15% of them with no complaints to our patient advocacy department. In fact, we received multiple compliments on how helpful patient data was to patients and families. There is a growing body of medical literature to support this.”
Data Security and Privacy
A federal ruling from April 2021 legally requires healthcare providers to offer electronic access to patients’ information without delay upon request.
On the one hand, this will force providers to deliver an experience customers demand. “Patients want a tool that helps them easily manage their health,” says Sara Heath, managing editor at Xtelligent Healthcare Media. “Patients want to see all of their data in one place, be able to make decisions about their care, and complete other health-related tasks all in one centralized location.”
On the other, it presents a cybersecurity risk —one that already worries patients. Research by healthcare cybersecurity company CynergisTek found that while almost half of Americans would use telehealth for mental health and therapy, many worried their health data was at risk of being hacked.
A patient’s health record is a huge source of valuable data for hackers, which is why it’s so important for healthcare providers to protect that data, says Experian Health’s Jason Considine.
“Without proper encryption methods, login redundancies and detection tools, portals are almost as easily accessible to hackers as they are to authorized users,” Considine says. As their usage grows, that lack of security will become an exponentially greater threat to patients’ [protected health information] and identities.”
He offers five methods providers can use to protect data, including:
- Automating the signup process and confirming the patient’s identity.
- Enforcing multifactor authentication.
- Promoting interoperability standards.
Accessibility for All
As it stands, patient portals aren’t the most accessible piece of technology.
The current state of scheduling technology is far from perfect, says Kat Jercich, senior editor of Healthcare IT News. Patients complain that they’re confusing and difficult to use —an issue not helped by the fact patients have to learn a different portal for every care provider. They’re also disproportionately used by younger, white patients, which means leaning too hard on patient portals could compromise care journeys for many patients.
Furthermore, most people use their phones as their main devices. Our research shows 52.5 percent of people say their smartphone is their main device, with 48 percent accessing patient portals via mobile devices. Many portals, however, often aren’t optimized for the mobile experience.
Poor portal design is a major problem when it comes to smartphone usage, says Ward Andrews, CEO of Drawbackwards. “Most patient portals we’ve seen have so much information they almost need a dual screen set-up to be effective. That’s not convenient in a world dominated by mobile devices. While many healthcare providers have adjusted to this new mobile reality, there is still plenty of work to be done.”
The trick, he says, is not to overload patients with information. Instead, aim to present them only with the right information they need at the right time along their healthcare journeys.
In other words, simply adding all of these features to your existing patient portal won’t be enough. To offer a meaningful experience for patients, providers must think carefully about how to best implement them and develop an experience that works for all of their patients, regardless of background or how they access the portal.