Online patient portals: Why aren’t patients using them?

Laura Pryor 12/11/18 - 1:21 pm

Patient portals

A recent report from researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health revealed that 63% of patients surveyed were not using online patient portals. These portals—secure websites that allow patients to access health information and communicate with their doctors—offer many potential benefits. For instance, patients who use the portals become more engaged in their own health care and ask more questions of doctors and other providers. With 90% of health care organizations offering portal access to their patients, why are so many patients ignoring them?

Researchers offer these likely explanations:

  1. Their doctors haven’t recommended them. Many patients, especially older ones, rely heavily on doctor recommendations. If a doctor never mentions the patient portal or even discourages its use, it’s unlikely these patients will choose to access it. The opposite also appears to be true: Of the patients surveyed who said they did use a portal, 95% said their doctors had recommended it.
  2. They aren’t comfortable using the technology. Some respondents feared that their private health information would not be secure on patient portals. Others said they preferred to speak directly with their doctors—once again, not fully trusting the technology. Patients over 40 were most likely to have these concerns.
  3. The portal isn’t user friendly. Patient portals vary, depending on which vendor a health care organization uses. Some offer many features, including online appointment scheduling, real-time access to test results, online bill payment and messaging. Others are little more than a secure channel for notes to your provider. In a survey of health care website visitors, online bill paying was cited as the #1 pain point, with appointment scheduling close behind. If it’s too complicated, a patient’s first visit to the portal may be their last.

What can health care marketers do to encourage portal use?

  • Educate doctors. Encourage doctors in your hospital or health system to promote the portal to patients and be available for their questions and concerns. Recommend that doctors or nurses bring up the portal on their own laptop during appointments to show patients how to access their information.
  • Educate patients. It’s not enough to tout the benefits of the new patient portal. Dedicate a page on your website to explain how the portal works, step by step. A one-page handout or brochure patients can take home with them is another handy reference tool, in case they forget their doctor’s instructions.
  • Keep it simple. If your organization is having a lot of trouble getting patients to use the patient portal, it may just be too complicated. Consider moving to another, more user-friendly design.

Patient portals offer the opportunity to keep patients more informed and involved with their own health care – but not if they aren’t used. With the right education, doctors and patients can both benefit.

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