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Survey: Portals Aren’t Enough for Successful Patient Engagement

April 8, 2015
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Healthcare organizations are looking beyond patient portals to further enhance patient engagement, according to a new survey from HIMSS Analytics.

The research consisted of an online quantitative survey of executives from 114 healthcare organizations and a qualitative focus group that involved nine of these leaders. The study, sponsored by the Cambridge, Mass.-based InterSystems, found that the top drivers for patient engagement are to enhance and improve the health of the community (77 percent), the quest to build brand loyalty for patients (77 percent), and meeting meaningful use requirements (60 percent). However, these strategies might not be “fully baked,” according to the focus group participants. Indeed, some participants questioned their patient engagement plans.

“We don’t really have a true patient engagement strategy, just a portal project,” admitted one executive. Another chimed in to say, “We say we have a patient engagement strategy, but it is really just part of other strategies—wellness, health improvement, population health.”

These comments are a cause for concern, according to Joe DeSantis, vice president of healthshare platforms, InterSystems. “Even if organizations have a vision for real patient engagement, many are consumed with checking the boxes for meaningful use,” DeSantis said. “Unfortunately, a patient portal based on a single electronic health record (EHR) is not enough to move patient engagement forward. Engagement needs to span the entire care continuum. The short-term focus on meaningful use has often been at the expense of long-term strategic goals.”

As such, the research found that patient engagement initiatives often lack definitive leadership. According to the survey, multi-departmental/multi-role committees are the most common owners of an organization’s patient engagement strategy (26 percent). Other owners of the strategy include the chief marketing officers (15 percent), followed by chief information officers (10 percent) and CEOs (8 percent).

These strategy owners might not have the financial wherewithal to effectively move initiatives forward. Indeed, spending on patient engagement is spread across organizations—with IT typically buying the tools, ambulatory departments paying for the costs for program administration, and marketing shelling out the money for promotions, positioning patient engagement as a brand loyalty strategy. “I am coming to the conclusion that maybe we don’t actually have an organizational strategy around patient engagement if we have not set up a budget that owns all aspects of it,” said one of the surveyed executives.

Still, IT departments are turning to patient portals as their go-to tool for patient engagement, and their reasons for adopting portals are varied:

  • 71 percent of respondents who have an engagement strategy are using portal technology to meet current minimum meaningful use requirements for functionality and data sharing from a single source;
  • 54 percent are using portals that offer a combination of patient services, technology and content; and
  • 51 percent are using portals as a configurable, interoperable information exchange platform with data sharing from multiple sources.
  • Overall, about two-thirds of these respondents are using portals provided by their EHR vendors.

To fully engage patients, however, leaders are looking for next-generation portals to offer the functionality that will enable patients to become partners in their own care. More specifically, they are seeking functionality such as e-visits or e-consultations (80 percent), interoperability across multiple providers (70 percent), health evaluation and coaching (70 percent), and televisits (50 percent).

“Most portals don’t really align well with the definition of patient engagement,” one leader said. “They are great for convenience, but they don’t actually help people manage chronic diseases, improve their health, or give them resources they need to move toward healthier behaviors. Most of the tools out there just don’t deliver on that promise.”

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