Designed to allow patients to view personal health and billing information as well as schedule appointments, patient portals have thus far proven to be disappointing in terms of increasing patient engagement, improving clinical outcomes and reducing costs.

That’s the finding of new HIMSS Analytics online survey of executives from 114 healthcare organizations and a focus group including nine executives. According to the survey, the top drivers for patient engagement are to enhance and improve the health of the community (77 percent), the quest to build brand loyalty for patients (77 percent), and meeting Meaningful Use requirements (60 percent).

Patient portals are often touted as the ultimate patient-centric tool aimed at improving engagement by allowing patients to be the source of control and fostering transparency. However, what’s needed are next-generation portals with functionality that will enable patients to become partners in their own care, according to those surveyed. Specifically, respondents say they are seeking functionality such as e-visits or e-consultations (80 percent), interoperability across multiple providers (70 percent), health evaluation and coaching (70 percent), and tele-visits (50 percent).

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About two-thirds of survey respondents are using portals provided by their electronic health record vendors. In theory, EHR systems can help facilitate these objectives via the use of patient portals.

According to the survey: 71 percent of respondents who have an engagement strategy are using portal technology to meet current minimum Meaningful Use requirements for functionality and data sharing from a single source; 54 percent are using portals that offer a combination of patient services, technology and content; and 51 percent are using portals as a configurable, interoperable information exchange platform for data sharing from multiple sources.

“Unfortunately, a patient portal based on a single EHR is not enough to move patient engagement forward,” said Joe DeSantis, vice president at InterSystems, which sponsored the survey. “Engagement needs to span the entire care continuum. The short-term focus on Meaningful Use has often been at the expense of long-term strategic goals.”

A common lament from healthcare organizations is that their strategies are not “fully baked,” with some focus group participants questioning their overall patient engagement plans. Part of the problem is that patient engagement initiatives often lack definitive leadership . According to the survey, multi-departmental/multi-role committees are the most common owners of an organization’s patient engagement strategy (26 percent). Other owners of the strategy include the chief marketing officers (15 percent), followed by chief information officers (10 percent) and CEOs (8 percent).

“These strategy owners might not have the financial wherewithal to effectively move initiatives forward,” according to HIMSS Analytics and InterSystems. “The roadblock: Spending on patient engagement is spread across organizations—with information technology typically buying the tools, ambulatory departments paying for the costs for program administration, and marketing shelling out the money for promotions, positioning patient engagement as a brand loyalty strategy.”

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