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Portals push patient involvement, improve outcomes

In the past few years, interactive patient portals have moved from novelty items at most hospitals to valuable tools to measure quality, outcomes, and patient satisfaction.

David Wright, executive director of the Institute for Interactive Patient Care, a newly formed, private nonprofit think tank that tracks and promotes patient engagement, says the popularity of interactive portals has grown apace with the emphasis on patient engagement in their own healthcare.

"The theory is the more engaged the patient is the better the outcomes," Wright says. "It's one of the biggest things that hospitals struggle with. A portal should serve an important role in engaging patients to take more responsibility and remain active in the management of their own health on a longitudinal basis."

The capabilities and sophistication of the portals can vary dramatically. Wright says an "average" portal allows patients to store and access information relating to their health condition, such as medications and course of treatment. Many portals also give patients the opportunity to self-educate about their health issues and provide compliance and reminder tools for medications and appointments. Some portals allow patients to schedule appointments or refill prescriptions.

While different portals come with different bells, whistles, and price tags, Wright says successful portals share "continuing themes" of enhancing communication between providers and patients, and enhancing coordination of ongoing care once the patient is discharged.

If more patients are to embrace portals, Wright says, healthcare providers need to demonstrate "threshold-level functionalities" for data security, patient ease of use, and portability of information. "Patients don't want to be tied down to one hospital or health system," he says. "They want the ability to have this universal approach to managing their own health information and tying it with other resources. The broader the scope of the portal, the more likely the patient is going to use it."

Jessica Perez, the patient system analyst at Kishwaukee Community Hospital in DeKalb, IL, says an in-patient portal allows the 100-staffed-bed hospital to quickly and in person address a range of patient concerns that are monitored on intranet care quality surveys. "It really catches people off guard. You ask them something on the computer and immediately someone follows up with them," she says. "People are more honest with a computer than with a person, so it definitely engages the patients. If there is an issue, we'd rather deal with it while they're in the hospital rather than let them leave with that issue."

Wright says emerging portal technology will allow "dynamic" exchanges between patients and their healthcare providers "where they communicate openly and routinely get a response. The patient is going to get a lot more out of that, but it requires a lot more management of the portal by the sponsoring organization," he says.

Wright believes most healthcare providers will adopt an incremental approach toward patient portals, developing strategies that will evolve over time as they learn what patients are using. "Find out what they are looking for and then add functionality and content and capability over time as the subscriber base increases," Wright says. "That's not to say it doesn't involve investment. But it's less about resources and more around strategies."

Carrie Vaughan and John Commins

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