Portals just a starting point for a patient engagement strategy

Healthcare organizations aim to provide tools that make it easier for consumers to interact and enjoy their care journey.

For all the foibles, duplicity and clunkiness ascribed to patient portals, they are an accepted building block for health systems that want to enhance the experience of their patients.

But experts at Health Data Management’s ongoing series on patient experience acknowledge that portals are only an on-ramp, not the entire superhighway. Leading health systems are building on portals with other features, capabilities and technology to offer the functionality that patients want.

Providers’ efforts to develop digital-first strategies to better support patient care were the topic of Wednesday’s HDM KLASroom session, entitled “Moving Beyond Patient Portals.” Portals, while an integral part of most providers’ initial patient communication efforts, can engender a love-hate relationship with the consumers they’re meant to serve.

“The portal’s not going anywhere,” said Dan Czech, a director of market analysis for KLAS Research. “It’s the way we interact with patients. Now it’s kind of the core. So the question is, how do I build around the portal to build a better patient experience? How do I leverage what I’m already paying for?”

A quick survey of 300 consumers by KLAS before the COVID-19 pandemic emphasized the significance of the portal, but those consumers also wanted to see more availability for telehealth. Then, the need for such virtual services soared because of the pandemic, and consumer enthusiasm remains high. But portals are now “their primary touchpoint,” Czech said. “They want a consolidated patient portal – the sentiment they express is they want a consistent and unified experience.”

Banner Health, a Phoenix-based health system, is bringing more capabilities to its patient-connection technologies, which it terms a digital front door, said Christopher Stallings, senior director of consumer digital. The system weighs the benefit of technologies against Sofia, a persona of a typical consumer looking to facilitate care delivery for her children, parents, partner and herself.

That has raised the question of “to what extent is the portal part of the digital front door,” Stallings said. “What other technologies are included?” Looking to the portal offered by a system’s electronic medical records system, and making full use of it, is typically the first step. Then, it’s a matter of adding on technology that’s important to consumers, such as symptom checking. In sum, technology can be effective in aiding the patient from the point of engagement to post-treatment follow-up.

“We wanted to create an experience that it’s easy to schedule a visit for Sofia,” he said. “Our portal, that’s the base layer; how do we be thoughtful about what we put on top of it?” Much involves taking a fresh look at current processes and ascertaining whether they are truly effective or meeting patients’ needs. “Too often we take a crappy process and just digitize it.”

Using Sofia as a persona, Banner Health re-examined its use of waiting rooms during the pandemic. Now, that introspection may need to radical – but welcome – changes in consumers’ eyes.

“We have set our sights on eliminating waiting rooms,” Stallings said. “We’ve said let’s ditch that entire process; you can check in from your car. We can verify that you’ve done your paperwork and you can go straight to the examination room.”

Similarly, Deborah Heart and Lung Center is looking to take advantage of the use of text messaging and other cell phone capabilities to improve the patient experience, said Rich Temple, vice president and CIO. The facility is integrating its records with Apple Health, “so consumers can access as much data as they possibly can. Texting opens up a lot of possibilities, like sending pre-op instructions via text, directions in the facility or parking information or other logistics like that.”

Temple’s facility sees such communication as part of the process in delighting its customers” without bulking up on new technology. “You already have some existing infrastructure, so rather than spending a lot of money, let’s use what we already have,” he said. “We don’t want to have 92 different tools; that becomes a nightmare to maintain. We would like to have as much as possible on a single platform, integrated into our EHR.”

A recording of the entire event can be found here. Register for the next session of the HDM KLASroom series on patient engagement here.

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