Health care portals: A patient’s connection to your EHR

August 9, 2012

A patient portal is a digital interface that allows a patient to interact specifically with his/her health care information.

By Geoffrey G. Goodfellow, O.D., and Dominick M. Maino, O.D.

An important component of an effective electronic health record (EHR) system is a patient portal. A portal is a Web interface to related sets of data, content, or Web services. Google is one of the most well-known portals that aggregates information into one place.

What is a patient portal?

A patient portal is a digital interface that allows a patient to interact specifically with his/her health care information.

Patient portals can enable a patient to complete one or more of the following:

  • Request or check a health care provider’s appointment schedule
  • Complete new patient intake or case history forms prior to the office visit
  • Access his/her health records including lab or test results
  • View account balances, download statements, or make payments related to their health care
  • View the status of optical and contact lens orders
  • Request a pharmaceutical prescription refill
  • Receive electronic messages from health care providers such as appointment reminders, billing statements, or lab results
  • Submit electronic messages to a health care provider or initiate a virtual office visit with chat or video conferencing.

Patient portals could be accessed with a traditional desktop or laptop, a tablet computer, or even a smartphone.

To ease the transition for patients, many of the online Web forms can be made to look similar to traditional paper forms.

Patients gain access to the portal by using the Internet to connect to a specific Web address.

Most often, this can be a hyperlink directly from the practice’s main webpage.

For security, the patient logs in using a secure username and password. Secure portals should exchange data in a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)-compliant manner that involves data encryption.

Most patient portals give authority to the provider to share only the data that he/she wishes the patient to see. The provider notes are protected.

The information itself doesn’t actually reside in the portal; instead, the portal is merely a gateway to connect the patient to data that are stored in the EHR or practice management systems.

Sending health care information through patient email is not secure.

However, the practice can still use familiar tools like email and text messaging to alert patients that there is secured information available in the patient portal that needs their attention.

Advantages of patient portals

  • Minimizes office waiting time while patients fill out paper forms.
  • Some systems provide information in multiple languages with automatic translation built in.
  • Unlike a telephone conversation or email, all correspondence between provider and patient with the patient portal is automatically archived with the patient’s record.
  • Health care providers can deal with fewer mundane tasks and are able to provide care to more patients.
  • Studies indicate that providers tend to improve their EHR documentation when they know it will be reviewed by patients online in a patient portal.
  • Patients and families are able to feel more connected and in control of their health care. A recent survey found that patients, particularly those with lower incomes, pay more attention to their health when they have efficient access to their online health information.
  • A patient portal is the most cost effective and patient service oriented strategy to fulfill some of the meaningful use core measures.
  • Portals have the potential to improve the management of chronic disease.

For example, patients who actively engage with the patient portal to record their glucose, blood pressure, and physical activity may monitor these values and make better lifestyle choices on a daily basis rather than just at times in close proximity to a doctor’s visit.

Disadvantages of patient portals

  • Some patients may not have access to an Internet-enabled device. In these cases, a touch-screen kiosk or tablet could be provided in the patient reception area. To ease the transition for patients, many of the online Web forms can be made to look similar to traditional paper forms.
  • Not all patient portal systems are the same. Some offer more features than others or may have different levels of meaningful use compliance. Patients are already familiar with portals from banking, insurance, and other businesses, so their expectations for a health portal are often very high.
  • There are purchasing and implementation expenses to establish an EHR system with a patient portal.
  • There can also be resistance to changing the practice work flow and retraining staff to interact with a patient portal.
  • Although the technical details for patient portal data security lies with the EHR provider and not the health care provider, there is still a concern by some patients about having their personal health information available online.

How do patient portals impact optometry?

Under the meaningful use provisions included in the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009, in Stage 1, patient portals are simply a convenience for delivering to patients the required clinical summaries of office visits.

However, in Stage 2, for which details have not yet been published, a patient portal will likely be a necessity.

All providers will need to demonstrate:

  • Timely electronic access to changes in health information
  • Electronic copies of health records
  • Clinical summaries of office visits
  • Patient-specific education resources.

In short, a patient portal system of one form or another can save providers a tremendous amount of money on staff time, printing costs, and mailing costs in meeting some of these meaningful use measures.

As for the “timely electronic access to changes in health information” measure, providers will likely need to utilize a patient portal specifically.

Recent research shows 73 percent of consumers would use a patient portal to help them pay their health care bills, communicate with providers, make appointments, and obtain lab results.

Patients are demanding increased health information technology.

Optometry is a significant player in health care, and the patient portal will surely be an important component in all of our practices.

Dr. Goodfellow is an associate professor of optometry at the Illinois College of Optometry (ICO) and the college’s assistant dean for curriculum and assessment. He can be contacted at ggoodfel@ico.edu. Dr. Maino is a professor of pediatrics and binocluar vision at ICO and a recipient of the Leonardo da Vinci Award of Excellence in Medicine. He can be contacted at dmaino@ico.edu.

One comment

  1. Thanks for an easy to read explanation of the benefits of a patient portal..

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