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Building Better Patient Portals in the COVID-19 Era

Today, 66% of the largest hospitals in the United States use an online patient portal1. And as patient expectations for robust self-service experiences in every aspect of their lives continues to grow, more and more speciality clinics are faced with a decision.  Innovate or lose savvy patients.

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated why using patient management software and patient portals is the future. It’s an ideal way to securely share health information, empower patients with powerful healthcare tools, and eliminate the risk of spread.

In this post, we'll discuss:

The Early Era of Patient Portals
Benefits of Patient Portals During the COVID Pandemic
Features Every Patient Portal Should Have
Phone with Appointment

The Early Era of Patient Portals

It used to be that in order to see your doctor or get personal health information, you would have to follow a series of steps:

  • Call your doctor’s office
  • Schedule an appointment
  • Have any necessary lab work done
  • Wait a series of days for the office to call with your results

This process could span days or even weeks.

The advent of patient management software, which powers patient portals, has streamlined this process, cutting down the days and weeks to days or even hours, with the added bonus of boosting patient engagement. How? By empowering patients and giving both patients and providers faster access to much-needed information.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the need for patient portals as a method of keeping patients and doctors connected safely while still offering exceptional patient care.

How do you develop a better online patient portal that will encourage use now and in the future? By building it with patients in mind.

Building the basics – but better

At a minimum, portals should be easy to use and give patients access to self-services features like appointment scheduling, payment, and test results. This has an even greater importance in the COVID-19 era when more things are done online to encourage social distancing.

That’s why online portals have new enhancements to encourage greater use and effectiveness. Patients can now schedule online, confirm visits, and even check-in virtually. There are more options for messaging healthcare team members, and test results are no longer just a list of numbers patients must decipher — one of the often-noted problems with patient portals. Instead, they can now be built to include test results and graphs, so patients can better understand and track their progress. After all, how much more satisfying is it to see visual progress in your efforts to lower your cholesterol in graphic format? Nothing says “success” than seeing a continuous downward slope to your ideal number.

Another problem with patient portals is, in the beginning, they didn’t include insurance information, or if they did, it was confusing. Now portals can include easy-to-read benefit summaries. By including clear benefits summaries and other important insurance information, patients can better understand what is available to them, select the appropriate providers, use their funds wisely. 

Telehealth options
Sometimes when you’re sick, the last thing you want to do is get out of bed and drive to the doctor, even though you need medical care. Other times, you may have a routine visit schedule but don’t want to take the risk of sitting in a waiting room with contagious patients. During a pandemic, going to a hospital or clinic may also put an additional burden on people who have an already-compromised immune system and put many others at risk, including doctors, nurses, office staff, and patients in waiting rooms.

A better alternative is telehealth visits. Telehealth is a relatively new technology that can be accessed via online patient portals. While new, it is quickly gaining popularity, especially now when people are more hesitant to visit the doctor, even when they need to.

With telehealth, patients can view and speak to their doctor over a secure connection. Providers can ask and answer questions, provide diagnoses, and prescribe a course of action, all while the patient is in the comfort of their own home. Not only does this help mitigate the spread of any communicable disease, it can help cut down on time usually spent checking in and waiting to be seen.

Telehealth also helps providers triage patients more effectively. The majority of telehealth visits may result in a course of care including a pharmacy prescription and instructions for diet and rest. However, some cases may result in a decision to bring the patient into the clinic or hospital immediately. In this way, telehealth helps free up bed space for those who truly need it, while more effectively treating other patients at home.

Real-time information and push notifications
The internet is flush with information about COVID-19, but much of it is conflicting and leaves patients asking, “Which sources can I trust?” This has even greater importance in situations like COVID-19, where new information is discovered every day. Often the best source for accurate medical information is a trusted doctor or healthcare team, who has access to a patient’s unique history and are uniquely positioned to answer their questions and concerns.

With an online patient portal, healthcare teams can share comprehensive, real-time information with patients. For example, when patients are looking for information on COVID-19, providers can post best practices for staying healthy (such as frequent hand washing), list common symptoms, and provide instructions on when—and where—to go if an infection is suspected.

In addition to being posted in a designated section of the portal, these messages can also be sent to a select group of patients and appear in their portal inbox. Some portals also offer push notifications that can go to the patient’s personal email or smartphone. By doing this, patients can feel at ease knowing they have a trusted resource for information, and healthcare teams can quickly and efficiently reach their patients with the latest information.

Online patient portals? There’s an app for that.
There are around 300,000 health and fitness apps available in major app stores. Wouldn’t it be great to have secure access to your health records, correspondence with your doctor, and even your ID card on your smartphone? It is possible with a mobile app that connects to your online patient portal. Like the original interface, this includes all the necessary information, as well as ID cards. It’s a benefit for patients to have one less card to carry, and a tremendous benefit to provider offices who no longer have to photocopy, scan, and file cards. In a world rocked by COVID-19, it also has an added benefit: Having everything available digitally helps streamline patient check-ins, limits face-to-face interaction, and frees up waiting rooms, which helps encourage social distancing guidelines.

Future portal enhancements

Patient management software is dynamic and continually advancing how we access healthcare. One exciting patient portal enhancement on the horizon is greater integration with ERH on routine readings, such as blood pressure, blood sugar readings, and dialysis function. This is ideal for patients with chronic conditions who require regular check-ins.

For example, patients who regularly check their blood sugar levels can have this information automatically inputted into their EHR. Doctors can then see trends in real-time and make adjustments as needed. The same can be applied for those who require kidney dialysis. With these future enhancements, developers hope to empower providers to be able to stay even more connected with patients and help them achieve optimum health.

Patient portals: Penrod’s final take

Patient portals have been popular since their inception, but with recent events like COVID-19, you can expect to see even greater demand – from both patients and healthcare providers –  in the weeks and months to come. Portals offer a secure, socially distant-appropriate way to connect patients and their healthcare team. With easy access to real-time push notifications, telehealth options and more, they are a smart way to do healthcare. The key is to build it with the patient in mind. By meeting their unique needs, you can encourage patient portal adoption and help engage patients in their care.

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1Research 2 Guidance. mHealth App Economics 2017/2018 - Current status and future trends in Mobile Health 2017.