Portals: The Next Step in Patient Engagement
Although healthcare practices are racing to adopt patient portals to meet MU Stage 2 requirements, these tools offer much more than just a way to receive incentive dollars. When employed strategically, they can facilitate personalized patient engagement, improve satisfaction and maintain loyalty, elevating an organization’s clinical and financial performance as well as its service delivery.
How Portals can Capture Patient Attention
Portals facilitate engagement, and ultimately the patient experience, by providing significant benefits to both patients and providers. For example, a portal operates on the patient’s timeframe with 24/7 availability anywhere the patient wants to use it. Moreover, it provides a confidential communication platform for personalized two-way dialogue between patients and providers, allowing patients to get their questions answered in a private and secure manner without having to make an appointment and spend time visiting the doctor’s office. This often encourages patients to address health issues more readily.
Portals also increase efficiency by offering real-time, online appointment booking that saves patients and staff time. Patients can even pre-register for appointments online, streamlining their arrival to the office and getting them in front of the physician faster.
On the business side, portals facilitate patient payment through electronic statement delivery and remittance capabilities. Not only does this make payment more convenient, it increases the likelihood patients will pay, helping the practice improve cash flow while decreasing the risk of bad debt.
Strategies for Optimizing Portals
When used to their potential, portals can provide a competitive advantage over market peers, especially those without a robust tool. The technology communicates that a practice is forward-thinking and patient-focused while enabling convenient and responsive care. As healthcare reform gives patients more flexibility in where they seek services, it is becoming even more important to fully leverage portals to foster patient engagement and satisfaction. This increase in patient satisfaction can ultimately help improve a practice’s financial performance.
In my opinion, practices can get the most out of their portal by implementing the following tactics:
- Create a multi-disciplinary group to develop an overarching portal strategy. When viewed as an IT project, portal implementation tends to focus on meeting MU requirements rather than enhancing the patient experience. To avoid this scenario, practices should bring together clinical, practice management, and IT leaders to define portal goals and objectives, keeping the patient top-of-mind. During this time, the group should clearly outline roles, so that everyone knows the part they play in optimizing portal use before, during, and after implementation.
- Use clinical staff to promote portals and get patients registered. The portal’s credibility goes up when physicians or nurses talk with patients about the tool’s capabilities and benefits, and encourage enrollment. Clinicians should take advantage of one-on-one time with patients to explain how current care could be more efficient if the patient used the portal, providing specific examples the patient can understand. For instance, the provider could point out that patients are able to refill prescriptions via the portal, reducing the time the physician and patient need to spend during the onsite visit discussing refills. To further prompt enrollment while the patient is in the office, practices should provide convenient registration opportunities—perhaps through a designated kiosk, desktop, laptop or tablet.
- Engage patients when sign-up occurs. To fully reap the benefits of a portal, practices should look beyond enrollment. If patients sign up and nothing happens, they probably won’t use the portal in advance of the next visit. On the other hand, if the practice immediately contacts the patient with a personalized acknowledgement, the patient may be more likely to use the technology long-term. I’ve seen practices send a message to patients a few hours after enrollment with a communication from the physician explaining lab results and providing prescription renewals. This draws the patient in and clearly demonstrates the portal’s value. In my opinion, organizations that commit to regularly using the portal to communicate information of value can dramatically expand patient adoption and care involvement.
The Future Looks Bright
As providers and patients increasingly accept portals, new applications will broaden their impact on care delivery and the patient experience. For example, portal-enabled e-visits are an emerging way to streamline care for certain patient types and non-urgent issues, while meeting consumer demand for convenience. Instead of making an appointment and driving to and from the practice — sometimes requiring more time than the appointment itself — the patient communicates directly with a nurse practitioner or other clinician via the portal. The e-visit carries a flat fee that is payable when the patient books the appointment online. Even though the cost is not currently covered by all payers, this has not deterred patients in those practices now offering e-visits.
Given the current trajectory, portals stand to play an expanding role in healthcare delivery. In my view, organizations that are prepared with a patient-focused portal strategy can ensure they get the most out of the technology, helping to improve the overall patient experience and strengthening the practice’s future viability.
Brad Boyd is vice president of sales and marketing for Culbert Healthcare Solutions.