Will Patients Use the Patient Portal?

Seventy-five percent of patients say they want online access to their physician, and 62 percent of patients say this would influence their choice of physician1. The mandate is clear: healthcare has to become more competitive, and in order to continue growing your patient base, you must offer the web-based services that patients want: online appointments, Rx renewals, secure messaging and other features offered by patient engagement vendors like Omedix.

But will patients use your patient portal?

When we speak with new clients, this is a constant concern, and we do understand it.  All these tools for patient self-service are great, but how do you know if patients will actually take the time to sign up and use the new services?

We now have enough experience to definitively respond to this question.  The short answer to “will they use it?” is “Yes, but you have to have staff buy-in, and you have to promote it.”

A Tale of Two Practices

I’d like to demonstrate with a brief personal story.  When I last visited my primary care provider a few months ago, I went through the usual annual physical regimen.  Part of that included an EKG and to my surprise, my doctor found a potential heart defect — a right bundle branch block — that could be nothing but that I should get checked out by a cardiologist just in case.

So I booked an appointment with the cardiologist, got an echo, and fortunately the cardiologist considered the episode completely benign.

Now fast forward a few weeks, and I was asked by my insurance agent to gather all my medical records, which sent me back to both clinics.  At this point, 3 weeks into the request, I am still waiting for a copy of my report from both practices.

What is significant about this rather uninteresting story?  Well, both of these providers have patient portals, and in both cases absolutely no effort was made by anyone — doctor or staff — to inform me about the portal, get me to use it, encourage me to get my results or pay my medical bill online, etc.

Finally out of sheer curiosity, while checking out from my cardiologist appointment, I pretended that I didn’t know they already had a patient portal on their website.

Me: “Do you have some kind of online service I can use to see my medical record or book appointments in the future?”

Staff Member: “Oh, I think they were trying to set something up but it’s not set up yet, so I don’t think we have anything.”

That’s an interesting response because (a) it was inaccurate, and (b) the fact that there’s a “they” and not a “we” tells me this person has zero ownership of the patient portal initiative.  Because I know the industry, I happen to know this cardiology practice pays about $600/month, or $7,200/year for this service, and what value are they getting out of it?  Well, in my professional estimation, none!

What a High-Utilization Practice Looks Like

In contrast to the two practices above, as the CEO of Omedix, I obviously study utilization data across our clients to see how things are going.  One of our highest-utilizing clients is less than 10 doctors, in primary care, and run by a younger-than-average practice manager who has an iPhone, iPad, and loves technology.

In his practice, all staff were introduced to the portal and encouraged to tell every patient who calls that they could have booked their appointment online.  The signs that we sent them to promote the portal are posted in their office.  If you call their phone line and are on hold, the patient portal is promoted, and most important of all, the staff generally recognize the value of the portal and appreciate it as a better way — in most cases — of communicating with their patients.

How to Build Adoption and Utilization

The takeaway above is basically to gain staff buy-in and promote the portal to get usage out of it.  Here are some other tips:

Perhaps the most important element in ensuring patient adoption is staff training. When your staff speaks to patients about transactions that could have been handled online, they should politely tell them so. When your staff checks patients out, they should inform them of the patient portal, or even help register them on the spot.

Think of each patient interaction as an opportunity to enroll your patients in a more efficient, preferred way of communicating with them. The investment will ultimately save you time and money by empowering you to communicate with your patients in a way that is easy and efficient for your practice.

When an online service is simple and intuitive, both user satisfaction and return visits increase. Look for a patient portal solution that is easy to use, makes it easy to sign up, and is easy to get to.  All the staff at any practice are patients themselves, so just pretend you’re a patient at your own practice and see what you think.

1http://www.harrisinteractive.com/news/allnewsbydate.asp?NewsID=1096

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