In Part I of our blog series on patient portals, we reviewed some of the challenges in implementing and adopting them. In Part 2 we address these issues and how to create a valuable, compelling experience for patients. Some recommendations are based on overall user experience best practices, while others are unique to patient portal functionality.
Create an Engaging and Simple User Experience
A fundamental need is to deploy a platform that is easy to use. The user interface should be modern and intuitive, meeting the expectations of patients who grew up as digital natives as well as people who are more technology averse. Elements of an effective experience include:
- Simple, streamlined, and consistent user interface, particularly if the patient portal is bringing together multiple underlying software products.
- Single sign-on if the patient needs to navigate across multiple platforms when using the portal. Don’t require users to remember multiple sets of credentials.
- Clear language to effectively convey potentially complex health information to a lay audience.
- Easy process to reset/recover login credentials because patients will forget their usernames and passwords.
Customizing the user experience may seem like a daunting task given that patient portals are generally packaged software products with defined features and user interfaces. But options do exist. Most portal products have the flexibility to configure, enhance, and design the user interface to varying degrees. This is not an area to skimp on budget dollars and simply deploy the out-of-the-box interface with your logo slapped on it. The same goes for single sign-on and integration. Creating a seamless experience for patients is worth the investment.
Include the Right Features
Portal products consist of features and capabilities that can be enabled or disabled for a given implementation. It’s common for a portal to initially be deployed with a limited set of capabilities and additional features enabled over time. Some reasons for this include a more phased, or pilot, roll-out, or the organization may not yet have the back-end processes in place to support all portal features. While there are certain valid reasons to start with a reduced set of capabilities and expand, you must ensure that the portal includes enough features for your patients to find it truly useful.
Commonly sought-after portal features include:
- Registering as a patient or caregiver
- Viewing test results
- Corresponding with clinicians in a secure manner
- Requesting appointments and the ability to schedule appointments
- Sending prescription requests to clinician and/or a pharmacy
- Accessing education material for the patient/caregiver based on their diagnosis and medical condition
- Scheduling e-visits and attending a clinical visit virtually
- Integrating the portal with an electronic medical record (EMR) so the patient/caregiver will be able to view the health information (or an appropriate subset) as captured in the EMR
Provide an Effective Mobile Capability
As web usage continues to shift to mobile devices, an effective mobile capability for the portal is critical. Also consider that about 12 percent of the U.S. adult population accesses the internet solely through a mobile device (source). An effective mobile experience is essential for these users.
The question then becomes – should you provide a mobile-optimized version of the patient portal or a native app? Recent research has shown:
“Patient portal adoption is variable, and due to design and interface limitations and health literacy issues, many people find the portal difficult to use. Conversely, apps have experienced rapid adoption and traditionally have more consumer-friendly features with easy log-in access, real-time tracking, and simplified data display. These features make the applications more intuitive and easy-to-use than patient portals.” - (source)
Bottom line, the mobile experience for a portal should not be an afterthought, but rather a central component of the strategy. While device and screen size limitations can impact how much information or capability can be provided via mobile, some key features have been identified as particularly useful.
Top five things patients want from a mobile portal (source):
- Appointment scheduling
- Clear test results and access to office notes
- Messaging with clinicians
- Health education tools
- Ability to check prescriptions and refills
Communicate Security Features and Provide Access Control
Patients need secure ways to communicate with their healthcare provider and want the assurance that their information is safe. This issue is particularly top of mind now as data breaches occur with increasing frequency and several healthcare systems have been affected by well-publicized ransomware attacks. Beyond ensuring that the portal environment and patient data is adequately secured, make sure the security of information is clearly communicated to patients.
It’s also important to provide patients with the ability to control access by others to their health information, particularly in situations where the patient is a child, elderly, or disabled and requires a caregiver’s assistance in making medical decisions.
Build and Execute a Marketing Plan
A patient portal is much more than a technology implementation; it’s also a change management initiative that impacts both the healthcare organization’s staff and patients. A critical part of that change management is a marketing and education initiative that needs to happen both within and outside the organization.
Internal to the organization, staff must be trained on using the portal, processes must be put into place to ensure the appropriate information is making its way to the portal and patient communications are happening in a timely manner. This process may involve adjustments to job descriptions and staff evaluation/incentive processes to ensure that staff see leveraging the patient portal as an integral part of their job role. This effort also requires a degree of marketing to educate staff on what value the portal provides to them, patients and the organization, and how effectively using the portal can positively impact patient outcomes.
Marketing the portal to patients is critical to building awareness and engagement. You must educate patients on the benefits of using the portal, how to use the portal, and reinforce that messaging through multiple methods, for example:
- Link to it (and advertise it) on your website. People are visiting your website already for other reasons, so make visible calls to action on your website that link to the portal.
- Use paper. Pass out pamphlets, brochures, or any other type of document when patients sign in for a visit and give them information to read about the portal and the benefits of using it while they wait.
- Use blog posts and social media to advocate use of the patient portal, explaining the benefits or how to access it.
- Teach patients in person; train staff to be advocates for the portal. Show them the benefits, give them a deeper understanding of the tool and encourage them to share their insights and experiences with patients.
- Leverage video and multimedia to help both patients and staff understand how to use the portal. These interactive mediums help to increase engagement with the content.
- Postcards and emails. Place information directly in the hands of your patients.
- Digital signage/basic signage around the office to increase visibility and awareness of the portal.
- Use phone hold messaging to promote the patient portal.
Get, and Keep, Patients Engaged
The failure to get, and keep, patients engaged is one of the key reasons that patient portals fall into disuse. As much as we promote the use of the portals, they should be adopted as part of internal practices and procedures as well. Keeping the portals up to date with relevant information to patients will keep them engaged. The same goes for patient-provider communications through the portal. Patient inquiries and requests should receive a response within a reasonable amount of time, typically a business day.
Part of the staff training process should include communication best practices to ensure that what’s communicated to patients is clear and not overly complex. With in-person interactions, it’s easy for a patient to ask a question or request clarification if something is unclear. That’s much harder with asynchronous written communication where a real-time conversation is not possible, and misunderstandings are more common.
Continuously evolving and enhancing the portal with new services and resources will keep patients coming back; particularly if you provide resources, beyond patient records, that are not available elsewhere. Some examples include curated health tips, a Q&A platform, or telehealth services. Launching a successful portal is not a one and done task; it requires planning and effort to keep it relevant and optimized long-term.
Bringing It All Together
As we’ve discussed, many patient portal initiatives have been less than successful because they have been treated as just another technology roll-out project. What must be recognized is that this initiative is much broader–it requires a focused effort to create an excellent digital patient experience and the backing of well-executed change management and marketing initiatives to build and maintain patient engagement. Contact me to learn more.