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Are you making the most of your patient portal?


Many physicians have been struggling to meet the Stage 2 Meaningful Use patient engagement threshold, requiring that more than 5 percent of patients view, download or transmit their health information electronically.

stethoscope on computer

A study published last September in Health Affairs found that only 24 percent of physicians routinely provided patients with that ability. It’s no wonder, then, that many stakeholders applauded the changes proposed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) last April to relax the requirements.

Acknowledging “significant challenges,” CMS proposed replacing the 5 percent requirement with only one patient who uses the technology. The agency also proposed replacing the 5 percent threshold of patients sending a secure message using certified electronic health record technology with a “yes” or “no” acknowledgement that they can. The final rule is expected to be released in August.

Patient engagement isn’t going away

While CMS may relax the rules, practices should continue to encourage patient use to make the most of their portals. Patient engagement isn’t going away because physicians will still need to provide access to information electronically to meet not only Stage 2 but also Stage 3.

There are efficiency benefits to a practice when a substantial number of patients actively use a portal. For example, the number of distracting phone calls and phone tag can be reduced. In addition, staff time can be freed up from tasks like locating and copying lab or imaging reports for patients, as well as mailing the reports.

A patient portal can facilitate coordination of care. Patients can directly share their health information electronically with other physicians, such as specialists. Patient portals also can increase patient satisfaction, in turn benefiting a practice’s reputation.

If you build it, will they come?

Offering a patient portal doesn’t mean patients will sign up or use it. For the most part, simply having a wall poster up or giving patients a handout about the portal as they leave the office doesn’t work.

Practices that have been relatively successful in engaging their patients have some of the following tactics:

If a patient calls with a question, the emailed response should include a link to additional information available on the portal. (Emails from office personnel should have the physician's name on it, rather than the practice name, since patients are more likely to open an email from an individual they know.)

In whatever way you increase awareness, however, patients will not use a portal if their email to the office doesn’t get a timely response. Also, a portal should be easy to navigate. Confusing features create patient frustration and lead to low usage rates.

According to a survey by Software Advice, Inc., a software advisory company, unresponsive staff (34 percent) and confusing portal interfaces (33 percent) topped the list of what patients find most irksome about patient portals.

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