Engage Patients and Improve Outcomes

Implement three practices to achieve success with patient portals.

By  Vern Davenport
The “meaningful use” of electronic health records (EHRs) and other federal regulations are pushing for more online communication between providers, patients, and payers to bring about a more transparent exchange of financial and clinical information. In response, many providers are implementing patient portals, which have improved patient engagement and outcomes as a positive side effect.
According to an AARP study, engaged patients tend to be healthier and more likely to follow their provider’s advice. Engaged patients are also typically more confident and knowledgeable about healthcare, and take more responsibility for their health. These benefits can mean improved quality, optimal utilization, and lower healthcare costs, overall. Investing in patient engagement can make good business sense for providers — allowing them to leverage incentives, build patient loyalty, and improve outcomes.
Source: “Beyond 50: A Call to Action for Health Reform,” AARP Public Policy Institute. March 2009
Patient portals help establish a framework for patient engagement by:

  • Offering access to their health information;
  • Facilitating provider-patient messaging; and
  • Providing convenient scheduling and billing resources.

These three features enable patients to actively participate in the process of managing their health and healthcare needs by partnering and communicating with their physicians, which is how The Center for Advancing Health defines “engagement”:
Employers, government payers, politicians, health plan administrators, technology developers, labor leaders and patient advocates have noted the need for the public’s involvement in health care and have labeled the phenomenon patient or consumer “engagement.”
Source: “A New Definition of Patient Engagement: What is Engagement and Why is it Important?” Center for Advancing Health. http://cfah.org/pdfs/CFAH_Engagement_Behavior_Framework_current.pdf
Let’s expand on the three ways practices might establish the framework for patient engagement through patient portals.
1. Access to Health Information
Historically, if patients wanted to review information in their chart, they would ask their practice to photocopy documents, or to print them from the EHR system. This was an inconvenience for both the practice and patient, and could take several days to complete.
With portals, providers can document office visits and notes and send these summaries to patients within minutes. They can also offer patients direct access to documentation in the electronic chart. As a result, patients have timely and accurate information about their treatment plan and care options, reinforcing the notion that they share the responsibility for their care and for making informed health decisions.
Portals also allow practices to leverage advanced functionalities that will help them to achieve the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS’) Stage 2 Meaningful Use core objective, which requires providers to offer patients “the ability to view online, download and transmit their health information within four business days of the information being available to the eligible professional.”
2. Communication with Providers
In addition to satisfying core objective 17 (“Use secure electronic messaging to communicate with patients on relevant health information.” (CMS, October 2012)) for Stage 2 Meaningful Use through health information access, patient portals also facilitate patient engagement.
Secure messaging features in patient portals allow providers and office staff to communicate with patients for non-urgent matters, without wasting time playing “phone tag.” Despite fewer interactions over the phone, patient engagement actually increases through the portal because it serves as a direct connection to the practice through a computer or mobile device. Most importantly, all transactions and interactions can be tracked and monitored through monthly reporting that gives the practice a view of patient engagement trends and progress over time. Practices can analyze that data to determine when patients most often send secure messages and how quickly providers are able to respond. This will help to ensure a prompt response rate and increase the chances a patient’s health concern or question will be addressed appropriately, which will likely improve his or her outcome.
Smartphone applications are an important part of this value proposition. Consumers want support wherever and whenever they want to take action. For example, if a patient sprains an ankle during his or her lunch hour, the patient may head to a costly emergency room or urgent care center if he or she cannot immediately determine whether an appointment is available at his or her primary care physician’s office.
3. Scheduling and Billing Resources
As with the sprained ankle example, many patient portals offer administrative support elements — such as scheduling — that can transform and simplify every interaction a patient has with his or her practice.
Patient health status and history paperwork, for instance, is often not filled out correctly or completely in the waiting room on the day of an appointment, adding to the burden on staff members and delaying office visits. This in turn affects scheduling and the provider’s workflow, leading to longer wait times and care decisions due to limited information.
A portal gives patients the ability to fill out and submit paperwork online and to access to all of their medical information. They can also make appointments, pay their bills, request prescription refills, and receive reminders. These features are especially effective if delivered as a smartphone notification because these devices are usually with patients and frequently accessed throughout the day. Patients can take immediate action with smartphones, confirming appointments or requesting prescription refills, with a tap on their screen. Conversely, reminders delivered by postal mail are easily lost or forgotten.
To measure patient engagement, practices must consider actions that illustrate connection and collaboration with their providers. A few good patient engagement indicators are patient portal utilization and transactions, such as scheduling preventive care appointments through the portal, sending medication refills, or communicating with their provider through secure messaging.
Establishing reporting and analytics around these measures early on allows practices over time to more accurately set achievable goals, analyze engagement, and identify opportunities to improve performance. These metrics will not only help providers align with value-based care and meaningful use objectives, but they will also position practices for a sustainable future.
Vern Davenport is president and equity partner of Medfusion Inc., a leading provider of patient engagement and practice efficiency software for more than 9 million patients. He brings a lifetime of healthcare and healthcare technology experience to his role.

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Renee Dustman, BS, AAPC MACRA Proficient, is managing editor - content & editorial at AAPC. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Media Communications - Journalism. Renee has more than 30 years' experience in journalistic reporting, print production, graphic design, and content management. Follow her on Twitter @dustman_aapc.

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