The patient portal—whose hallmark is direct consumer access to a provider EHR—can build many bridges between physicians and the public they serve.

For a portal to catch on, health care organizations should focus on two key areas, says John Moore, founder of Chilmark Research, which tracks the health I.T. industry. First, says, Moore, the portal needs to be promoted by physicians. “Physicians need to talk it up during the visit as a great way to interact with the practice,” Moore says. Second, the portal needs to give patients access to a handful of transactions and services they find most valuable, Moore says. These include access to lab results, the ability to request appointments, online bill paying and access to their own record. “This is the real basic stuff patients want to do online with physicians,” he says.

Given the fact that it is linked to a particular provider, the portal does have limitations, especially if patients seek services from other specialists, Moore says. “It does not create the full longitudinal record,” he says. Despite that, the portal offers several advantages over stand-alone personal health records, which patients control. “It will be difficult for stand-alone PHRs to make it,” he contends. “They don’t have the most basic tools. They don’t do appointments or refill requests.”

Health systems looking to build a portal have a ripe audience, says Harry Greenspun, M.D., senior advisor, Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. Citing data from Deloitte’s annual health I.T. survey of consumers, Greenspun says that medical associations and community hospitals stand at the top of the heap among consumers as a trusted source for an online health record.

According to its survey, about 11 percent of the U.S. population maintains a personal health record, defined as using computer software or a Web site to maintain health history (the survey did not distinguish between hospital-provided portal access and standalone PHR software controlled by patients). But 60 percent said they would like to be able to connect with their physicians electronically.

At the bottom of the consumer trust list are employers, health insurance plans and medical device companies, Greenspun says. “There is a lot of work pushing out information from employers or insurance companies trying to manage health costs, but consumers don’t trust either,” he says.

To read more about contemporary patient portals and the role of the PHR, see the April cover story of Health Data Management.

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