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The Ugly Truth about Patient Portals

January 24, 2011
by Pete Rivera
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Consumer expectations are high with competition from banking, insurance, employee, and government portals

My doctor recently instituted a Patient Portal for his large Family Practice. I was excited. I thought I would be able to schedule appointments, track my AIC’s and look at my lab histories. I had some very basic expectations. I went through a very tedious sign-in process which left me with some reassurance that it was very secure. Once I got inside the portal, I had access to pay my bill, or send a message to the staff for RX renewal or appointment requests. Boring!

The truth about patient portals is that it is competing against Banking portals, Credit Card portals, Insurance portals, Company Employee portals, and some very slick Government portals (HealtheVet). The consumer expectations are set very high. In my case I expected some very basic health information that would help me manage my diabetes. I want to review health data just as much as I want to keep tabs of my bank expenses, on-line bill pay and on-line statements.

From the Healthcare IT side a Patient portal is a daunting task. I was putting together a proposal to help a hospital system develop a new patient portal and the requirements read: “Solve world hunger and streamline all our data to our patients.” This of course is the other side of the spectrum. There are two sets of learning curves here. The patients that will learn to use it and the IT folks that will build it. The patients must learn to navigate through features gradually as you add them. The IT folks must learn to present registration, scheduling, financial and clinical information in a secure environment often from disparate systems. The challenge is to build something useful first, which will keep them coming back as you add features.

The first step lies somewhere deep in your interface engine. If you have something like a Cloverleaf interface (now Lawson) then you already have a traffic cop with built-in rules for matching criteria. The second step is to survey your patients about expected features and functions. You have to keep this as a Patient project, not an IT project. As such, you should tap into some community advocacy groups and use them as part of your steering committee. That’s right! The consumer gets to help design it. If you fail to do this the portal will be designed in reverse; From the IT requirements first and then the patient requirements.

Patient portals are one of Healthcare IT’s favorite topics, right alongside of Single patient statements for Hospitals/Clinics. However, from a consumer’s standpoint (which we all are), portals are expected tools to help us manage our health care.

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