As more practices are adopting or integrating electronic health records (EHR) systems to meet meaningful use stage two requirements, many physicians are weary of the criteria surrounding patient portals. The most notable requirement may be that patient portals must be provided to more than 50 percent of all unique patients, and that more than 5 percent of them must access and use this resource.
One major concern many physicians have is becoming overwhelmed with patient communication regarding diagnosis or lab results. By placing this information in patient portals, many professionals fear that patients will misinterpret or become confused by the information and will reach out to doctors over the phone or by email with unnecessary questions. This can take away from practice efficiency and quickly use up the physician’s time, resulting in a system that is more harmful than helpful.
A study by Kaiser Permanente on its model of online healthcare concluded that the primary reason patients visited its portal was to view test results, followed by online appointments and prescription refills. Additionally, the study concluded that 63 percent of patient emails required clinical assessments or physician decisions, and 24 percent required clinical actions, like lab tests. The main reasons patients emailed their physicians were for discussing a change in health conditions, laboratory results, new conditions, prescription dose, or needing a new prescription.
Patients will use the resources at their disposal to get ahold of doctors for insight and information, and if handled incorrectly this can be both time consuming for doctors and frustrating for patients. However, evolving your patient portal solution into an effective tool for communication and education can increase value for patients while actually improving efficiency.
One of the most effective ways to manage patient communications is to group inquiries and delegate who is responsible for different types of interactions. For example, your practice can select one individual who is responsible for looking at all new emails to decide whether they are related to billing, diagnosis, test results, or appointment scheduling. Then, this person either handles the inquiries himself or forwards it on to the appropriate staff member. This encourages individuals in your office to take greater responsibility for patient engagement, and increases the timeliness of responses because the work is more evenly dispersed.
One of the main advantages of patients portals is the patients ability to feel more connected with their healthcare decisions. To fully take advantage of this additional connection, all emails should be responded to in a timely manner, preferably within 24 hours of receipt. Even if the response is simply saying the doctor will take a look at the message when he gets a chance, it’s important to recognize that you received the information and that you take all patient communication seriously.
Additionally, some information simply shouldn’t be addressed over a patient portal. Some sensitive questions and information regarding more serious conditions should be reserved for in-person meetings. It’s important for your practice to establish standards for acceptable forms of communication depending on the nature of the question prior to implementing a patient portal. For example, have written guidelines dictating when an email response is appropriate, when a phone call is more fitting, and when an in-person appointment is required. This will ensure that all physicians are maintaining professionalism with patient communications.
Many of the primary reasons that patients contact physicians already happen regardless of the patient portal’s influence. Even if your practice doesn’t have online resources, patients will still call to discuss changes in the condition of their health, new conditions, or prescription changes. By properly utilizing your patient portals, you can prevent redundant communication caused by confusion while empowering your patients with greater access to their health information.
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