What Makes a Great Patient Portal? Top Benefits, Features and Implementation Tips

on July 24, 2019

It’s helpful to think of patient portals as the Swiss Army knives of medical software. Why? They’re just so versatile.

Government health care officials encourage the use of these multipurpose tools to digitize key parts of a medical practice’s workflow: Portals handle administrative and clinical functions and allow patients to be more engaged with their care team.

In this guide, we break down everything you need to know before purchasing or replacing a patient portal.

Biggest benefits of patient portals

Every year, more doctors realize the benefits of patient portal adoption. In fact, the results of surveys conducted by Software Advice show a rising number of Americans are logging onto portals.

In May 2019, we surveyed 232 patients and found that 72% had access to a patient portal. That’s an approximately 64% increase over the finding concluded in a similar study conducted in 2016.

Patient access to portals

The fact that this software is catching on so quickly reflects the unique advantages it brings. However, rising adoption rates are just one indicator of the value patient portals can bring to your practice. Other reasons to implement a portal include:

  • To foster better patient-physician relationships: Portals offer a round-the-clock platform on which both parties can conveniently exchange health information, ask questions, and review medical notes—providing more opportunities to connect.
  • To optimize your workflow: Digitizing manual tasks (e.g., billing and scheduling) can free up your staff, allowing them to dedicate their time to activities more directly related to patient care.

Patients choose their top 7 portal features

Once your practice is ready for new patient portal software, take some time to consider what functionality is on your wish list. The range and breadth of features a portal offers will vary based on vendor and cost.

It’s important to separate the “must-have” capabilities from the “nice-to-haves” early on, so you don’t waste time considering solutions that don’t fit your requirements or that cost too much.

For example: You may have an urgent need for online bill pay functions to expedite collections, but might not want to pay extra for automated appointment reminders.

In order to help you evaluate common portal capabilities, we asked patients which portal features they would need the most:

  • Scheduling appointments online
  • Viewing health information (e.g., lab results or clinical notes)
  • Viewing bills/making payments
  • Checking prescription refills/requests
  • Filling out pre-visit forms (e.g., intake form)
  • Sending messages to my care (healthcare provider) team
  • Updating medical history

Respondents selected all that applied. The results can help you pick a system with features your patients actually want to use:

Most requested patient portal features

What’s more? These findings show patients want to take a more proactive role in interactions with your practice. This is a win-win: Just imagine how much more efficient your front office could be if 77% of patients scheduled their appointments online!

Next, we’ll show you what the top capabilities actually look like so you can visualize them as part of your practice.

Top 7 patient portal features in action

Below are screenshots from some of the highest-recommended patient portals on Software Advice’s website (based on reviews submitted by actual software users). Each showcases one of the top seven features chosen by the patients in our survey:

Appointment scheduling

Appointment scheduling in NueMD patient portal

System: NueMD

Highlight: The drop-down menus in this user interface (UI) make it easy for patients to set appointments with more than one physician and/or location. Patients are given multiple time and day options that align with provider availability.

Viewing health information

View health information in Elation Health EHR patient portal

System: Elation Health EHR

Highlight: If a patient has questions about his/her results or wants tips from your team on health management (e.g., how to decrease his/her glucose levels), he/she can instantly reply to your lab-results message through the software.

Bill pay/view

View and pay bills in MDConnection patient portal

System: MDConnection

Highlight: The patient’s invoice, with the balance due amount emphasized in red text, is located right above the billing information form for easy reference.

Prescription follow-up

Prescription follow-up in eClinicalWorks patient portal

System: eClinicalWorks

Highlight: There are two different ways to request a prescription refill through this portal: click on the “request refill” button on the home page, or go to a separate “Refill Requests” page to view a comprehensive list of current medications and make a specific selection.

Filling out pre-visit forms

Fill pre-visit forms in ClinicTracker Connect patient portal

System: ClinicTracker Connect

Highlight: Users of this patient portal don’t have to dig around different tabs to find the forms they need to complete. A hyperlinked collection of all requested forms, including their due dates, is listed on a single screen.

Send messages to care team

Send messages to physician in drchrono patient portal

System: drchrono

Highlight: Allows patients to send messages from the portal to the healthcare provider in a safe and secure manner. Provides patients with a convenient alternative to face-to-face appointments, telephone contact, letters, and e-mails to send messages.

Medical history updates

View medical history updates in Intelligent Medical Software patient portal

System: Intelligent Medical Software

Highlight: These patient forms are customizable with a number of data entry tools (e.g., check boxes, open note fields, images) to help patients express their current condition in the most clear and comprehensive way.

How to select a patient portal

It’s very common for patient portals to be bundled into an integrated EHR suite that includes additional medical software applications. Alternatively, practices can choose to purchase patient portal software as a stand-alone or integrated program. Here are the differences between the two types of systems:

Stand-alone vs integrated patient portals

Once you decide whether you want a stand-alone system or a suite, there are a number of steps you can take to select a vendor:

1. Research pricing and set a budget: Your budget will often dictate how robust you can expect your portal to be. Call our team of expert medical Software Advisors at (855) 998-8505 to get free, custom price quotes on patient portals that fit your needs.

2. Compare product screenshots: It’s very important to pick a portal with a simple, yet effective, UI. This way, your patients will feel comfortable logging on with minimal guidance.

3. Read detailed product reviews: If you like the look of a certain portal, make sure the functionality and customer support it offers are equally impressive. You can do this by checking out real-user reviews for hundreds of patient portals on our website.

4. Shortlist five or six products: It can be tough to narrow down your options with so many systems out there. Feel free to email me or fill out our online questionnaire to fast-track that process for free.

5. Contact the vendors on your short list: Once you have a manageable number of systems to evaluate, arrange personalized product demos with every vendor. This allows you to weigh the pros and cons of each with your team before choosing the perfect one.

Patient portal implementation advice

After you’ve decided on a specific product, you still have to make sure the implementation goes smoothly. Here are some best practices for introducing the technology into your workflow before sharing it with your patients:

Take advantage of the product’s training materials: Vendors offer a wealth of online educational materials that you can use to train your staff. These range from recorded webinars and instructional videos on YouTube to FAQ pages on the vendor’s website.

Designate a “super user” in your office: Most of your staff should be able to get by learning only the basic functions—but your practice should have at least one “super user” responsible for mastering the software. This will be the go-to person for fielding questions, requesting support from the vendor, and providing tips or shortcuts to the rest of your staff.

Create office-wide policies about when/how patient portal information is sent: You should be clear about who’s responsible for responding to patient portal queries, and how often they should do so. For example, maybe the front office fields general portal queries every few hours, while nurses field clinical ones, such as follow-up care questions, as they come in.

Collect patients’ email addresses: Patients usually have to provide their email address to register for access to your portal. If you start collecting addresses early in the implementation process, you’ll be able to hit the ground running once the portal goes live. Consider modifying your pre-visit forms to include a section for patients to enter this information.

Set goals for your team: Determine specific objectives related to patient portal use at your practice. For example: Maybe your goal is to get 5% of your patients to access your portal in the next eight months, or for 10% to pay their bills online.

Tracking goals will show whether the technology is serving its intended purpose, or if you need to change something in your workflow to encourage greater engagement from staff or patients.

Best practices for portal engagement

Even after you’ve done everything we’ve suggested for a smooth portal implementation, its success will ultimately come down to whether or not your patients actually use it.

This is a challenge for some practices—so we wanted to determine what factors discourage patients from logging onto a portal.

We asked survey respondents which of the following experiences would most frustrate them (selecting all that applied):

Patients top frustrations with patient portal

Confusing website/portal interfaces (69%) and unresponsive support (64%) are the most common gripes. This data supports our earlier recommendations: Practices should choose a system with a user-friendly design and institute policies about responding to portal queries in a timely manner.

Here are some more tips to incentivize patient portal usage:

Ways to encourage patient portal use

Want to delve even deeper into best practices for choosing and using a patient portal solution? Check out this Buyer’s Guide for information on pricing, market trends and more.

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