By SONDA EUNUS, MHA
As most medical practices move towards using electronic medical record (EMR) systems, electronic patient portals are becoming more prevalent. Most EMR systems include this feature, but many practices may not realize the extent to which the use of such a portal can benefit their operations. Collecting email addresses is an additional task for employees to complete, and patients may not always be very forthcoming with this information. However, when faced with the various benefits that increased use of a patient portal entails, it may be a good idea to emphasize the importance of collecting patient email addresses and web-enabling all patients. The best way to achieve results is to educate the patients on the various things that they can do via their patient portal. Some practices have created colorful attention-grabbing posters that list the benefits of their patient portal and hung them up in their waiting rooms and exam rooms; others have trained their providers and employees to inform patients of these benefits when asking for their email address. Most portals across various EMR systems have similar features, but are also able to be customized to each practice's specific needs. The most common features of a patient portal allow patients to do the following:
- Schedule appointments. Patients can request to schedule an appointment, specifying their preferred date, time, provider, and facility (for multi-office practices). They are also asked to pick a secondary preference in the case that their first choice is not available. Some portals offer real-time scheduling, which shows patients available appointment slots in real time and allows them to schedule their own appointments directly into their preferred provider's schedule. Real-time scheduling may, however, be tricky for some practices if they have very specific scheduling policies of which the patients may not be aware. This would require the practice to call the patient back to reschedule their appointment, which may be time-consuming as well as frustrating to the patient.
- View their next appointment. Patients are able to see when their next appointment is scheduled and can easily request to reschedule it if necessary. This reduces no-show rates, as some patients may miss appointments because they are not aware of them or are not able to reschedule in advance. Patients can also see the dates and times of previous appointments.
- View their medical record and visit summaries. Patients can view their own medical records, lab results, and progress notes over a secure connection. This allows for the patient to participate and be more engaged in their own care, as they may not always understand or hear everything that the healthcare provider tells them at their appointment. This also enables patients to request corrections to their record if necessary, if they find any information that may be incorrect.
- Update their information. Patients can also update their demographic and contact information, as well as emergency contact information to keep it current. This helps the practice reach the patient when necessary, which can be tricky if patients often change their phone numbers or addresses. If a patient chooses a new preferred pharmacy or lab, that information can be updated through the portal as well, which ensures that the practice sends prescriptions and lab orders to the correct facilities. Additionally, health insurance plan information can be updated, which allows the practice to verify the patient's eligibility prior to their appointment without having to call the patient to obtain the new information.
- Send e-messages. Patients can send secure messages to the practice, and these messages are routed as per the practice's specified instructions. For example, questions of a clinical nature may be directed to a specified nurse, whereas general questions may be routed to a receptionist. Additionally, if the practice so chooses, patients are able to send messages directly to their healthcare provider. Using secure e-messages eliminates long on-hold times for patients who need to get in touch with the practice, and also frees up the phone lines for other calls.
- Request permissible refills. Patients are able to ask for refills on their prescriptions, which eliminates the need for the pharmacy to fax over a refill request on behalf of the patient and eliminates potential printing costs. Furthermore, it prevents unnecessary phone calls and is faster and more efficient for both the patient and the practice. However, patients must be cautioned that not all prescriptions can be refilled electronically--prescriptions for controlled substances still need to be picked up at the practice.
- Access patient education. Finally, patients are able to access educational material about what they or their family member is currently facing. Most EMR systems include several electronic patient libraries to choose from at a reasonable cost, which allow the physician to pick the appropriate content and publish it to the patient's portal. For example, after a pediatrician sees a baby with a rash, he or she can upload some instructions for the parent directly to the portal for the parent to be able to access whenever needed. This eliminates the need to print such material or hand out brochures, which may be more expensive. The practice is also able to upload and share their own documents, and does not necessarily have to incur the additional costs of using an electronic library.
Having a patient portal brings many benefits to the practice as well as the patients. Overall, it allows for greater communication between the practice and its patients, ultimately enhancing the patient experience. Additionally, it improves the practice's operations and revenue cycle by accomplishing several important tasks. By allowing patients to be more self-sufficient online, electronic patient portals free up the practice's phone lines for more revenue-generating calls. For example, in the time that it takes for an employee to take an existing patient's refill request, schedule their next appointment, or update their contact information, phone calls from potential new patients may be missed or placed on hold for increased periods of time. Employees relieved of picking up a large volume of unnecessary calls also have more uninterrupted time to spend with the patients that are at the practice at that time, improving those patients' experiences and creating long-lasting patient relationships.
Finally, financial activities are also made easier through the use of an electronic patient portal. Not only are patients able to update their insurance plan information, but they are also more easily reached in the event that their insurance is found to be inactive. If the practice is unable to reach a patient with insurance issues before their appointment, more time is spent resolving these issues when the patient shows up. This holds up patient flow, and causes the practice to run behind schedule. Furthermore, dealing with insurance issues is unpleasant when the patient is clearly sick and in need of medical care. No practice wants to turn away a sick patient simply because their insurance issues were not taken care of before their appointment. Patient portals also allow the practice to send patient statements online, which can either replace or complement traditional paper statements. If the practice can get all of their patients registered on their portal and is able to eliminate paper statements, it can save significant amounts of money spent on supply and postage costs. Additionally, employee labor is reduced as electronic patient statements are much more time-efficient than traditional statements which must be printed out, stuffed in envelopes, addressed, stamped, and mailed. Lastly, patients are able to make payments online, which many patients find to be much faster and easier than mailing out checks or calling the practice to make a credit card payment.
Sonda Eunus is the Founder and CEO of Leading Management Solutions, a healthcare management consulting company (www.lmshealthpro.com). Along with a team of experienced and knowledgeable consultants, she works with healthcare practice managers to improve practice operations, train employees, and increase practice revenue. She holds a Masters in Healthcare Management and a BA in Psychology. www.lmshealthpro.com