This post was originally posted on Advance Healthcare Network on November 2, 2015.
Medical facilities in the U.S. are known for the cutting-edge technology they use to treat patients, but until fairly recently, hospitals, medical centers, doctors’ offices and other care facilities typically lagged behind in adopting technology to efficiently manage records, data and patient-care team communication. Healthcare reform efforts were designed specifically to address that with incentives that promote digital communication and recordkeeping, and these measures have helped move the needle. Today, more providers use technology to share medical histories and communicate with patients. This moves well beyond the traditional notice of appointments and now includes delicate and sophisticated patient information including, in its best iteration, diagnostic imaging such as CTs, MRIs and Echos.
Patient portals are a part of this shift and are now frequently used to manage and facilitate the sharing of critically important data, such as medical records and images, as well as to provide a communication platform. It’s not only more efficient to manage data and communications electronically; it can also promote better outcomes by making it easier for clinicians to share information with far-flung patient care teams and ensure wider access to vital medical histories. Advanced image-sharing technologies, for example, make it possible for providers to use mobile devices to download and view diagnostic images and consult with colleagues from afar. As patients manage more complex conditions, diagnostic imaging and the associated reports become even more important.
Providers have an obvious stake in using digital tools such as portals, but what about patients? There is research that indicates that patients are also interested in using portals. A recent survey conducted by DICOM Grid showed that approximately 70% said patient portals can be a convenient communication tool. However, enthusiasm about patient portals isn’t universal, and patient usage rates still lag below optimal levels. Some patients are concerned about the privacy of their medical records in a digital context. Others fear that clinicians may use technology to reduce face-to-face time with patients.
So how do facilities that launch patient portals address these and other patient concerns and inspire people to embrace the portal? These five tips can address patient worries, improve the experience of patients who use the portal and encourage more widespread use:
Make it meaningful
Patients’ expectations are very high in the era of Dr. Google. Patients are highly motivated and want to have real information. One way in which a patient portal can really matter is to provide both lab and imaging data. Patients appreciate the central repository and the ability to share information with people that matter to them, including other experts and family members. Accurate feeds of lab data, as well as image sharing software, make this possible.
Give patients assurances that their privacy will be protected
It’s no mystery why patients are worried about privacy – corporate and government hacking incidents are in the news nearly every day, so the concern isn’t unreasonable. The best way to address it is to work with the vendors involved in deploying portal solutions, such as cloud-based image sharing technologies. Work with the vendors to provide information on how the system complies with HIPAA requirements, and let potential users know that the security measures used to protect their data is similar to the technologies used to safeguard financial information for online banking, which many patients use daily.
Emphasize that the portal enhances doctor-patient relationships rather than replaces them
Most patients rightly value their relationships with their doctor and other clinicians, and they may worry that a patient portal puts a barrier between them and their care team. To address this worry, let patients know that the portal isn’t meant to be a substitute for a face-to-face conversation with a clinician, but is rather designed to enhance communication. One way to reinforce this message is to consistently provide a contact number with portal communications so patients have a way to contact their clinician with any questions.
Respond promptly to patient messages sent via the portal
One of the most important ways to reassure patients that the portal will enhance their communication with their care team is to establish a policy of responding to messages quickly. Organizations that have successfully inspired high levels of participation typically designate a timeframe (for example, messages will receive a response within 24 or 48 hours) and adhere to the policy. It’s particularly critical to respond quickly to patients’ first portal messages to establish trust.
Design the portal to maximize the user experience
A portal that is hard to figure out or difficult to use can doom a portal program, so it’s incredibly important to develop a user-friendly system. The interface should be centered around users. Images should be simple to upload, and sharing features as well as messaging functions should be intuitive. One way to ensure that the system is easy to use is to request a free trial from the system vendor and make sure patients and staff find it simple and user-friendly before deploying it more widely.
Keep tabs on usage and improve the portal on an ongoing basis
Unlike many other types of communication, an online portal can track user visits and provide data that can help administrators evaluate how patients and clinicians are using the platform in real time. With insight into how the portal is being used, administrators can continuously improve it.
Portals are increasingly popular because, when designed well, they can be a valuable tool to improve patient and clinician communication and information exchange. Better coordination and data sharing can lead to better outcomes. However, before that can happen, patients have to actually use the portal in greater numbers. Healthcare facilities that follow these tips to assuage potential user concerns can encourage greater utilization while improving communication and access to vital data across the board.