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athenahealth Research: Low Portal Adoption Rates for Rural Patients

December 12, 2016
by Rajiv Leventhal
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Of the 5.5 million patients who are visiting clinician practices that are on the athenahealth network, 33 percent in urban areas were registered on their physicians’ portals. But in rural areas, that figure drops to just 18 percent.

An athenaInsight blog on Dec. 8 revealed the latest statistics from the Watertown, Mass.-based vendor as it relates to patients who had doctors’ visits between January and August of this year. For patients in metro-adjacent areas, the portal adoption rate was 21 percent, per the athenahealth data.

According to Gale Pryor, a senior writer for athenaInsight, the broadband gap is one explanation for this disparity. As of 2015, 64 percent of rural homes have internet access, compared to 74 percent of urban households. As such, patients who live in the remaining “dead zones”—rural regions with no internet access—will not have a direct, convenient connection to their doctors and health records anytime soon. Nor will they benefit from population health services that rely on patient portals, according to the blog post.

Indeed, Pryor wrote that patient portals could also be an aid for managing population health, but only if patients in need of services actually use their portal accounts. And, patients who live in these “dead zones” represent a population with high rates of chronic illness and addiction—the very patients that would most benefit from a 24/7 communication channel with their providers.

What’s more, according to the blog post, even in areas where wired or wireless access is available, rural patients may not be able to take advantage of it. To this end, homes that do have access may still be poverty stricken and cannot afford the services or the computer hardware. And even patients with computers at home can be suspicious of requests for their email addresses, said Pam Born, R.N., practice manager for OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital Athens Medical Associates Obstetrics and Gynecology in Appalachian Ohio.

Born said that her patients could benefit from healthcare’s increasing focus on improving population health—if they could also share in the nation’s technological bounty. She advises physicians and technology developers to keep the divide in mind.

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