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Hospital patient portals lack guidance on how to use them

Using online portals can give patients access to health information and secure messaging. However, hospitals are not properly preparing patients to take advantage of the platforms.

That’s the result of a new study, conducted by researchers from the Indiana University School of Medicine and Regenstrief Institute, who gathered data from a random sample of 200 acute-care hospitals nationwide.

They found that while 89 percent of hospitals had patient portals and 66 percent of these platforms included secure messaging, 58 percent of the secure messaging portals did not detail how patients were supposed to use them.

“Most portals with secure messaging (58 percent) did not describe appropriate patient messaging conduct,” state the study’s authors. “Although many included disclaimers that the service is not for emergencies, 23 hospitals only included this within the fine prints of their ‘Terms and Conditions’ section.”

Among the other findings of the study:

  • Portal instructions were more focused on operational and legal information, like how to sign on and liability limits, than on instructing the patient on what medical circumstances are best suited for portal use.
  • Some guidance used complicated language and vocabulary, which may hinder understanding by a general audience.

“We found that many instructional materials had more of a medicolegal focus, rather than a focus on the patient as a user,” says lead author Joy Lee, a Regenstrief research scientist. “This research indicates there is room for improvement when it comes to educating patients on the portals, especially related to secure messaging. The guidance that exists includes a lot of 'don'ts,' but not very many 'dos.' This makes it difficult for patients to properly utilize and benefit from the service.”

“Hospitals and healthcare systems have invested a lot of money in patient portals, but the investment won’t pay off for them or the people they provide care for if patients are confused about how to use the portals or don’t understand how to get the most out of the tool,” adds Lee.

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