Patient Portals are Good News for Medical Consumers

The days of vast paper records and colorful files in your doctor’s office papering the walls from floor to ceiling are rapidly changing. As physicians, clinics, outpatient service providers and hospitals grapple with evolving digital technology and healthcare mandates, maintaining accurate electronic records has become a priority. The changes are taking time, are costly for providers, and are confusing for patients. But the end result, sometime in the future, will be consistent reporting and patient tracking, truly portable records, simplified access, and improved patient safety and quality.

The healthcare world is being forced to comply by evolving Federal and State mandates and policies. Federal reimbursement strategies for Medicare and Medicaid providers require movement to these new ways of tracking data, though implementation is happening in stages. Called “Meaningful Use” regulations, providers participating in these federal programs have deadlines for implementing Electronic Health Records (EHRs), and in the coming years will continue adding other technological requirements.

The rest of the provider world is following – and sometimes leading — at varying degrees of enthusiasm and compliance. Each of us likely has seen evidence of this new healthcare world:  Many providers make appointments by email or text, X-rays and other diagnostic images are sent to providers electronically, and patient portals are being established that allow patients to review their records, test results and medical histories online through their providers’ websites.

There also had been an uptick in telephone and email-based medical services, from scheduling appointments to communicating with nurses and physicians. Patients who live in more rural areas or who suffer from chronic disease such as diabetes or congestive heart failure can complete simple testing online, such as stepping on a scale that sends your weight to a monitoring service, as well as testing your blood pressure or sugar levels and having this data sent electronically to a medical professional. By reviewing these results, provider can flag vital metrics that might indicate a medical problem or need for an intervention.

For the most part, the uptake of patient portals has followed on the heels of electronic health records. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, 41 percent of family practice physicians use portals for secure messaging, another 35 percent use them for patient education, and about one-third use them for prescribing medications and scheduling appointments.

For patients, using portals is relatively easy – provided you have an email address. There is a small learning curve though, and for older patients not as comfortable as Millennials with technology – or for people who don’t have access to the Internet or smart phones – access is more difficult. Getting started typically requires setting up a confidential user ID and password. Then, in addition to scheduling and record viewing, many providers offer a wide spectrum of educational materials and help lines on topics ranging from nutrition and fitness, to preventing heart disease or diabetes.

Communicating through portals can save nurses and receptionists time, too, since the messages pop up in real time on their computer screens. Patient-to-doctor or nurse direct communication also cuts out other staff members’ interpretation of medical issues and patient needs that can occur with phone calls or voicemail. And portals can contain updated prescription information, immunization records, medical procedures and dates, visit logs and family history, items that are vital for your physician, for hospitals, and for you, especially if there’s an emergency.

There remain other barriers, though. For example, most portals are English only, which poses a challenge for populations in inner cities and communities that can contain as many as 150 different languages and dialects. And many of these populations don’t have email accounts or trust technology, which also is true for many seniors, regardless of ethnicity, location, or income. These issues are being addressed, though, and eventually, most patients will be using online tools.

Meanwhile, for portal enthusiasts, confidential access to your personal health information has never been easier, nor has the ability to quickly and easily make appointments, leave messages and check recent test results. It’s a brave new world – but in this case, it’s changing for the better relative to quality, patient safety and consumer engagement.

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