Patient portals: More than meets the eye

Despite many healthcare organizations employing patient portals, the portal remains an underutilized resource. This low rate of adoption may stem, at least in part, from first-generation solutions developed in years past that offer little more than a website for patients and providers to communicate. As such, many healthcare organizations are overlooking more sophisticated, next generation portals that facilitate more advanced benefits, such as health information exchange, data analytics and population health management.

The first generation patient portals that emerged over the last decade were intended to facilitate communication among providers, patients and healthcare organizations. Without a functional electronic health record (EHR) infrastructure at that time, however, these portals provided little more than a way for patients and providers to communicate via electronic messaging. Essentially, they were advanced email systems spawned from hospital or practice websites.

As healthcare organizations gradually began implementing EHRs, portals became a technology afterthought. Although there are a myriad of reasons why first generation portals were sparsely adopted, it is most likely due to their limited offerings and features.

Beyond the immediate benefits

Unlike first generation portals, next generation portals can be much more than just a complementary technology to an EHR. Those built on a health information exchange (HIE) platform present many workflow efficiencies for providers, offer empowering tools for patient engagement and facilitate meaningful and relevant information exchange for healthcare organizations. Tasks such as renewing medications, receiving specific test results and scheduling appointments can all be done at the click of a button through portals.

Beyond these time-saving benefits, advanced portals provide a logical, organized platform for HIE. Although a healthcare organization may initially launch only the patient-provider communication portion of the portal, it already provides the integration and infrastructure necessary for HIE. By simply turning on additional functionality, organizations can achieve HIE capabilities without additional technology or staff.

Unlike most EHRs that merely collect and retain data, some portals can act as sophisticated data repositories. By methodically normalizing and mapping data, they provide standardized, structured and aggregated data sets ready for the kind of analytics that can open the doors to greater efficiency, potential ROI, and better patient care. Organizations can use the data, for example, to take a targeted approach to patient engagement, coordinate care transitions and more easily manage patient care at the population level. 

Identifying advanced portals

As with any technology investment, it is essential for organizations to conduct a thorough evaluation and selection process if they wish to maximize any patient portal application. The key is to ask questions designed to determine whether a solution offers benefits beyond basic workflow efficiencies and patient–provider communication.