It can be tempting to merely put Meaningful Use in the bucket of “government regulations” but the original intent was to empower patients with healthcare data. With many MU deadlines in the rear-view mirror, organizations are settled into a world where practice management and electronic health record systems are mission-critical infrastructure. However, patient-provider communications are more important than ever and that’s where these capabilities come together in the form of the patient portal.

EHR incentive programs like Meaningful Use and MACRA/MIPS place a high value on communicating with patients outside of the traditional telephone methods. And, it’s not just one-way communication from the practice out to patients. MACRA is driving patient access to information with the goal of empowering them and improving outcomes. Toward this end, MACRA is a major step for patient consumerism but it’s also a call for providers to make sure that accurate clinical data is quickly accessible to patients. In short, health IT has never been more important.

This makes patient portals the foundation of patient-provider communications, enabling patients to access CCDs (electronic copies of their health information) and communicate with clinical and administrative staff whenever, wherever it’s convenient.

These patient portal strategies will help prepare healthcare providers and their organizations for this shift in care.

Portals for every patient interaction

Empowered and satisfied patients are more likely to follow care plans and to pay bills in full. And, this is just as true for organizations where the patient isn’t the responsible party—like a pediatric practice. Chapel Hill Pediatrics, in Chapel Hill, N.C., strives to promote use of their portal with every patient interaction. By using incentives like raffles and ensuring the portal is visible on staff pins and mentioned in appointment reminder messages, they are engaging patients in fun ways and providing value in the portal to keep them coming back. By driving caregivers to the portal as a “one stop shop” for all things practice- and care-related, Chapel Hill Pediatrics is setting the stage for success in pay-for-performance programs.

Driving patients to fill out health history forms online or to pay outstanding balances can also be a great way to get them in the portal before they even walk into the waiting room. Ensuring all communications methods point back to the portal is also critical, from appointment reminder calls and emails to e-bills and paper statements to reminder cards and birthday postcards.

Empowering patients with self-scheduling

Appointment schedulers have a myriad of rules and guidelines in their head—or on sticky notes—that they use when scheduling appointments. But it’s simpler than it may appear to open up limited spots to patient self-scheduling through a portal. And, this shift can free up valuable staff time and delight patients.

In this self-service era where patients can use a few clicks to pick exact seats on flights, reserve tables for dinner or check their bank balance, they expect medical organizations to adopt similar technologies. Start this process now, opening up your simplest and most routine appointments to patient self-scheduling.

Making portals 24/7 back offices

According to FiServe, patient responsibility now accounts for 30 percent of a practice’s revenue, thanks to high deductible plans, higher copays and co-insurance. Combine that with the fact that 75 percent of consumers are using online payment channels to pay household bills, and it becomes vital that back office functions be easily accessed at any time of day or night.

One of the ways that Guilford Medical Associates in Greensboro, N.C., has taken their portal to the next level is by integrating a payment suite into it. Patients have the option of logging in to their portal account to see outstanding balances and make an online payment. Patients or caregivers also have the option of paying a bill without having to log in. Breaking down barriers to payment is a best practice that has enabled Guilford to achieve faster collections and increased portal usage.

Payment security is also top on consumers’ minds and encouraging patients to receive e-bills is not only more cost-effective, but it’s more secure than paper bills that can be stolen through unsecured residential mailboxes. In addition, make sure that your merchant services vendor, and online payment processors are PCI Level 1 compliant—meaning they use bank-level security measures to keep private information safe.

Managing the health of loved ones

From babies to aging parents, patients may have multiple dependents under an organization’s care. As a result, it’s important to ensure they can easily manage everyone’s health data from within their portal by having linked accounts functionality. And, easily accessing all the medications and procedures for an elderly dependent can simplify caregiver’s coordination between specialists. If access by minors is a concern, they can easily be “aged outs” of linked access based on your practice guidelines.

Helping patients help themselves

How many calls does your organization receive from patients asking administrative questions such as: when is my next appointment? Or routine clinical questions that require playing phone-tag with the patient: like which medication did the doctor prescribe? Or which lab value is the most recent? The answer to all these questions are in the CCDs inside your portal. Encourage your patients to keep track of their data, and to use the portal for these routine questions, and then deliver fast, easy and accurate responses.

As the some of the successful organizations referenced demonstrate, it doesn’t take a dedicated resource to ensure MACRA/MIPS compliance or to drive patient engagement to the next level. By blurring the lines between the administrative and clinical sides of a practice, through a fully-featured patient portal and patient-friendly payment suite, you can put patients in control and put them to work for your organization.

Kim Labow is chief executive officer of Medfusion in Cary, NC, a provider of solutions that simplify the patient experience.

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