About two-thirds of adult patients did not use an online patient portal in 2017, and research indicates vulnerable and disadvantaged patients are less likely to use these technology tools, according to a study published in the November issue of Health Affairs.
Technologies such as online patient portals, which provide secure internet access to medical records and test results in addition to email communication with providers, can improve health care quality. And, evidence thus far shows that access to online portals increases patients’ engagement and adherence and may reduce unnecessary utilization and spending.
However, while the majority of adults in the United States believe that online access to personal health information is important, disparities in portal access exist.
“Findings from multiple studies that analyzed different population groups, including nationally representative samples, consistently show that members of racial and ethnic minority groups, older patients, and people of lower socioeconomic status are less likely than others to access an online portal,” the study authors wrote. The study was led by Denise Anthony, professor of health management and policy and sociology in the Department of Health Management and Policy, University of Michigan School of Public Health. Anthony and her co-authors also note that “inequities in access to new and beneficial technologies can exacerbate existing disparities in health.”
One national study, a March 2017 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), found that only about 15 to 30 percent of patients who were offered access to a portal used it, with lower use among people living in rural and high-poverty areas.
“To identify appropriate levers that can be used to address inequities in online portal access, policy makers and providers must have a clear understanding of who is and is not accessing portals, as well as the reasons for not accessing them,” the study authors said.
For the study, titled “Who Isn’t Using Patient Portals and Why? Evidence and Implications from a National Sample of U.S. Adults,” researchers analyzed information about 2,325 insured respondents to the nationally representative 2017 Health Information National Trends survey to examine characteristics of patients who do not use portals and the reasons why they don’t them. By identifying who is not using portals and why, the researchers sought to uncover barriers and reduce disparities.
The study indicates that about two-thirds (63 percent) of insured adults with a health care visit in the previous 12 months reported not using an online patient portal. The research indicates that nonusers are more likely to be male and age 65 or older, have less than a college degree, not be employed, live in a rural location, be on Medicaid, and not have a regular provider.
These factors, along with race, were also related to whether a patient reported receiving an offer to use a portal.
Relative to females, males had significantly higher odds of not being offered access to and not using a portal, the study indicates. Members of racial minority groups (specifically, non-Hispanic blacks and non-Hispanics of other races—including Asian Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders) had significantly greater odds of not being offered a portal. Among only those who were offered a portal, these groups reported rates of using a portal comparable to the rate of non-Hispanic whites.
The study also found that people with only a high school diploma or less were significantly less likely than those with college degrees to have been offered access to a portal. Patients with Medicaid insurance were significantly more likely to report not having been offered access to a portal and not using one, compared to people with other insurance.
Patients who lacked a regular provider were significantly more likely to report not having been offered access and not using a portal.
When evaluating reasons why people did not use a portal, the researchers did not find evidence of disparities in technological barriers. The reasons patients gave for not using portals included the desire to speak directly to providers and privacy concerns, both of which require recognition of the important role of provider communication and patient-provider relationships, the study authors note.
The study authors conclude that healthcare providers will need to address patients’ privacy and security concerns to enhance provider-patient communication.
“Reducing disparities in portal use will require that providers, particularly those serving vulnerable populations, communicate with all patients about portal use and have the capacity to discuss these technologies with patients,” the study authors wrote.
“Health care providers and plans can increase patients’ use of portals and narrow disparities in that use through direct communication about the benefits of portals, while also addressing patient-specific needs and concerns. Such interventions will require recognition that providers’ communication with patients takes time—an extremely scarce resource in clinical practice today,” the study authors concluded, while also noting that careful monitoring of who is and who is not using new technologies, and why, and designing technologies to address patients’ needs, will help ensure that such innovations do not exacerbate disparities but rather lead to improvements for all.