Most physician group practices offer portals, a recent survey suggests that they’re not getting much value from them.

The survey, by the Medical Group Management Association, found that nine out of every 10 responding practices have a portal in place. The ability for patients to access information electronically is one capability prescribed by the federal Meaningful Use financial incentive program.

However, portal functionality available to patients can vary. While 43 percent of respondents have a portal that accepts patient-generated health data for clinician review, 37 percent don’t have that capability and remaining respondents were not sure if their portal offered it.

Pamela Ballou-Nelson
Pamela Ballou-Nelson

Pamela Ballou-Nelson, a principal at MGMA Consulting, says many providers simply don’t see the value of a patient portal. “When I conduct practice assessments, one of the most important questions I have is about patient portal functionality and how the practice trains patients to use it. Many practices believe their portal will create more work, and some tell me their patients don’t want to use it, which means they aren’t encouraging its use.”

But some of these reluctant providers have a point, Ballou-Nelson adds. Many portals are clunky and offer little more than a secure messaging application. To get patient acceptance, portals need five specific functions:

  • The ability for patients to not just view their health data but to have links with more information on lab results and other biometric findings.
  • Online appointment scheduling that enables patients to pick times convenient for them.
  • Online billing that supports adding credit card information.
  • Prescription refill requests to avoid calling the pharmacy.
  • The ability for patients to upload blood pressure readings and other health metrics, which can encourage higher levels of patient engagement.

Also See: Baystate Health adds medical images to portal information

Most importantly, portals should be designed to make it easier for patients to manage their healthcare, according to Ballou-Nelson. For example, during a recent assessment at a physician practice, the office had 10 to 15 phone calls and three walk-ins over four hours for patients requesting immunization or physical exam records for school or camp, and the portal wasn’t being used. “I pointed out that by using a patient portal, the practice could reduce the time patients and front desk staff had to spend on the phone or talking at the front desk.”

Another concern that practice have about portals is the question of which person will handle messages coming from patients via the portal. The answer is easy—it can be the same person that presently handles messages manually at a desk, but now the task is done quicker, Ballou-Nelson asserts. “You don’t have to have extra people—patients don’t send as many requests as doctors believe they will.”

Practices that not only encourage patients to try portals but actually take the time while the patient is in the office to walk them through how to get on the portal and access information should find that more patients will understand the value of portals, regardless of age, Ballou-Nelson advises.

And while it doesn’t happen often, she’s also finding physicians who have embraced the portal and require patients to use it or they will have to find another physician.

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