Patient Portal as a Provider-Patient Communication Hub

By Darya Efimova, Digital Transformation Observer, Iflexion
Twitter: @iflexion

In 2018, the healthcare industry saw an upsurge in patient portal adoption, with about 90% of providers deploying these tools, according to a report by Medical Group Management Association (MGMA). Though the tools are seen as an unbeatable advantage for patients, they are just as important for medical professionals. However, this point often goes unnoticed.

Two-way benefits
Patient centricity, a widely accepted concept, offers a range of benefits for patients. However, patient portal development has a lot to offer to doctors, too. We’ll consider its pros for clinicians below.

Communicating to engage
One of the key functions of patient portals is providing secure means of communication. However, this feature is often ignored—the communication is limited to automatic notifications about upcoming appointments or the availability of lab results. What’s more, patients don’t always know about all of the available portal features because doctors don’t even mention the tool to them. According to Regenstrief Insitute’s 2020 survey, only one-fifth of patients across the state of Indiana discussed the available communication solutions with their doctors or providers. As a result, portal use rates leave much to be desired.

To change the situation, the Regenstrief Institute researchers recommend to start discussing the upcoming health IT tools before they actually get deployed, during in-person consultations. When the portal is up and running, doctors may initiate communication by sending invitation messages to patients. In some cases, online medical discussions may help patients resolve their health issues, which reduces the costs for both parties. Besides, portal-based messaging allows patients to reach their doctors outside the clinic and get a personalized recommendation from home, which inevitably improves patient experience.

Nevertheless, this generally good practice may turn troublesome for doctors. What if the patient starts bombarding them with messages? To prevent such situations, providers should establish certain communication rules.

Setting clear rules
Portal messaging significantly altered doctors’ routines. Now they might spend about half of their office time in front of their computers replying to piles of patients’ messages. This increases the levels of stress and anxiety in medical professionals. To make the communication process efficient and pleasant, doctors should stick to a clear-cut set of rules for digital doctor-patient communication. How to work it out?

Unfortunately, a one-size-fits-all approach to inbox management doesn’t work here. Some providers attract administrators to communicate with patients, others allocate some of their doctors’ time to inbox management during the day. However, one rule holds true for all providers: they should be upfront with their patients about the response time and the actual respondent behind the messaging tool. If an administrative worker impersonates a doctor and gets busted, patients’ trust and engagement will most likely fade away.

Patients as quality guards
Doctors don’t always welcome patient centricity. They may be reluctant when it comes to allowing patients access to their notes fearing that their portal inbox will be flooded with clarification requests. However, the majority of patients can clearly understand clinical notes, and only some of them ask their doctors for clarification. Moreover, studying notes openly, patients may help doctors with making them more transparent and less biased. Patients might advise clinicians to avoid medical jargon and judgmental phrases for the sake of better patient experience and retention.

Today’s patients don’t hesitate to manage their health on their own, which makes them informed and qualified partners for providers. Besides, patients can help providers with managing some other tasks, especially those related to health data quality.

It should be noted that critical errors for patients and doctors are different. While the former will spot mistakes in drug names or symptom accounts, they’ll most likely let incorrect dosage slide, which does affect treatment and its efficacy. Therefore, patients’ reports need professional revision, which requires a certain management process to be established. And yet, there’s a silver lining here. When reviewing reports, clinicians may identify patients’ knowledge gaps and prepare suitable patient education sessions—another tool for engagement nurturing.

There’s one more point in favor of patients’ reports. They may help clinicians cover any blind spots in the patient’s medical history—breaks between episodes of care, some events missed by clinicians between visits, etc. With this patient-generated clarifications, clinicians may improve the EHR data, which potentially improves the care quality.

Partners in treatment
Doctor-patient communication via portals has another substantial benefit. This effort may become the first step in developing a cooperative relationship.

According to a recent IEEE Access paper on doctor-patient cooperation, building up this model takes three stages. The first one is about filling the patient’s knowledge gap. Well aware of the disease or condition, experienced doctors need to pass their knowledge to the patient to improve the treatment efficiency.

Secondly, doctors and patients need to overcome the two moral hazards typical of doctor-patient interactions. From the patients’ perspective, the hazard consists in exaggerating their symptoms to get more diagnostic methods. From the clinicians’ perspective, the situation is just the opposite—they assign extra analyses or medications if the treatments are going to bring extra profit to the facility.

Finally, reducing the information asymmetry and overcoming the hazards above, doctors and patients increase the level of mutual trust and become partners in treatment. From then on, patients openly share their experiences and ideas about the treatments with clinicians, who can transform and adjust the procedures on the go to deliver better health outcomes and experiences.

Key takeaways
Patient portals are important not only to patients but also to clinicians. Portals make a secure communication channel that clinicians can use to develop productive partnerships with their patients. Patients can assist doctors with some important tasks, such as health data quality maintenance. They can also help clinicians with developing personalized treatment plans that improve patient outcomes and experience.

However, to make it work, doctors need to make the first step—discuss the portal with patients before it is deployed and contact them via the tool afterwards. Otherwise, portal engagement will be less efficient, and its benefits only sporadic.