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Saint Vincent CIO—Why the Patient Portal Sells Itself to Patients

July 22, 2013
by Gabriel Perna
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At Saint Vincent Health System, the patient portal is just another cog in the machine. It’s another mechanism that helps the Erie, Pa-based, 427-bed tertiary care and teaching center carry out its overall strategy.

That strategy is centered on patient-centered care.  “We don’t exist without our customers and our stakeholders, and that begins with patients. We’re in healthcare, we’re here to heal,” says Richard Ong, CIO of Saint Vincent’s.

For information technology, this often means implementing systems that allow providers to run operations efficiently, whether it’s scheduling, billing, or prescription refills.  The patient portal exemplifies that to a T. The system, from the Cary, N.C.-based Intuit Health, keeps the patient connected to their provider round-the-clock through many of those capabilities. And vice versa, the portal gives the provider the patient’s problem directly from the horse’s mouth.

“It’s not diluted or interpreted from a third party,” says Ong, who has been at Saint Vincent for nearly three years.

Healthcare Informatics Associate Editor Gabriel Perna spoke with Ong on the portal as an effective communication tool, how it connects to the electronic medical record (EMR), where meaningful use Stage 2 plays into the system’s configuration, and strategies to get patients connected to it. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Explain what the patient portal has been able to do for Saint Vincent?

It helps with our patients being able to share their story, share their health information with a lot more clarity and put it in their own words. From a financial side, it helps with online bill pay. There are patient expectations that you should be able to pay online. We as business people and as part of society right now expect to do it electronically. It’s everywhere we go, and patients want to know what we’re doing is more modern and conducted in a secure manner.

Operationally, it provides the patients with additional options, and also helps by reducing the number of phone calls coming in the office. Not that we don’t like talking with our patients, but now that that communication can occur asynchronously and happens within a different layer of the organization, it can help to reduce the number of phone calls so we can sort and organize them, and make sure they are processed as efficiently as possible.

When you are talking about these ambulatory outpatient situations, we can probably admit that not everything there is urgent at times of high call volume. We don’t always have time to make requests and wait on the phone for 10 minutes.  It’s nice having an avenue or portal where you can make a request (whenever you have time), even if you are up at 2 in the morning.

Does the portal connect to the EMR?

Technically, we want to make sure there is some kind of interoperability and there is with this system. (Intuit) is a trusted partner with Allscripts. It adds a little more value and definitely has been welcoming. We take the technology for granted a lot of times, but we certainly don’t take it casually. Keeping patient information secure and accurate is a primary tenant at Saint Vincent’s.

How many patients have connected to it?

I do not have the exact percentage of patients, but we’ve pretty much seen a lot growth over the last year. We’re seeing 300-450 new enrollees per month. As of June 2013, we have 5,128 people enrolled or that have accounts on the portal. 

What strategies have you employed to get patients to connect with it?

I think it begins with by actually demonstrating its value. (Showing them that) this is definitely not a concept that is in development. It’s not like some kind of conceptual prototype. This is a working solution.  To be able to demonstrate the benefit of it, sells itself.

People want more features. I don’t know anyone who wants less ability, less tools in healthcare.  There is definitely growing appetite for tools that make life more convenient. Healthcare is no different. Our industry is one of the most complicated and we want to make sure patients have those tools. So I guess we don’t have to try too hard to get them to adopt it, because it pretty much sells itself.

We do make it easier, by providing instructions to get them enrolled online.

When designing and reconfiguring the portal, have you been looking at the regulatory demands of meaningful use Stage 2, which has a lot of focus on patient engagement measures?

It’s definitely been a focus and a factor for us. Patient engagement, their ability to have information secure, is part of normal compliance in terms of privacy. But in terms of governmental incentive programs, those are certainly significant factors that we take into consideration as we build our entire portfolio, which includes the portal.

What plans do you have for expanding the portal?

Now that it’s in place, we want to optimize it to ensure it’s being utilized properly. This means showing how it can be integrated into the patient’s entire longitudinal record. We utilize Allscripts on the outpatient/ambulatory side and McKesson on the inpatient side. Future plans mean making sure that information is shareable so that we can grab any clinical value from that patient interaction on the portal.

Right now, it only integrates with Allscripts. We’re looking to integrate it the McKesson in the future. But whether it’s clinical or financial information, it’s important that we operate better as a healthcare practice.

What advice do you have for other CIOs trying to implement a portal?