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Patient Engagement: Not Just for Meaningful Use Anymore

by Todd Rothenhaus, MD, Chief Medical Officer

Portal adoption is the critical first step in end-to-end patient engagement and to enable patients to become participants in their own care.  But many providers view it as one in a litany of “check-the-box” activities required for Meaningful Use.  How do you drive adoption by providers amidst this prejudice and drive sustained, meaningful engagement with patients?  This was the subject of my presentation at this year’s Healthcare Financial Management Association (HFMA) with Paul Shenenberger, Chief Information Officer of New Providence, N.J.-based Summit Health Management.

I’ve been inspired by Summit’s success pushing the boundaries of portal adoption beyond what’s required by Meaningful Use and embracing greater strategic and financial imperatives associated with portals.  With some out-of-the-box thinking, Summit, a physician-owned multi-specialty practice, used athenahealth's patient portal to drive impressive engagement rates and significantly improve monthly revenue.  These loyalty and business enhancing practices are exactly what athenahealth’s nationwide health information is committee to fostering and sharing with its clients everyday.

Industry observer and writer Leonard Kish is often quoted as saying, “If patient engagement were a drug, it would be the blockbuster drug of the century and malpractice not to use it.” There has been such a reduction in the time physicians have with their patients that both parties perceive poor value in their experiences. Healthcare is essentially trying to squeeze a lifetime of being human into a seven-minute visit! Engagement between visits is the key to helping doctors understand their patients and to building authentic relationships. The portal allows for that in an easy way by surfacing relevant information that educates patients and creates value. Regular touch points that are genuine—lab results, patient education during flu season, etc.—help directly engage patients in their own health. They can come into the office educated and ready to maximize their time.  The convenience factor of scheduling appointments and managing self-pay online is also undeniable.

The reality is that patients are reliant on online technology, and they expect it. They bank online, buy airline tickets online, and shop online.  Why wouldn’t they demand the same of their healthcare ? The portal gives patients an opportunity to engage with providers via their preferred medium they prefer and helps build loyalty amidst the competition that has developed within the retail care space. Patients will choose to go to providers that have the latest technology and provide the most convenience--including those with portals.

A recent Chilmark Research article, “Kill the Patient Portal,” argues that the patient portal as currently architected is a dead-end and forecasts the demise of the patient portal by 2020. That’s not the future athenahealth predicts.  Portals must change to become more effective, yes, but to say that the patient portals must die is like saying we need to kill a platform as central to our purchasing habits as Amazon. 

True, the current incarnation of the patient portal is not what the ideal patient wants; it’s what organized medicine decided the patient wants. That is to say, the patient portal is an experience which relies heavily on a desktop, not a mobile, platform. Patients want to use the portal the same way they use technology in other aspects of their lives.  We need to figure out a way to engage patients via portals without requiring them to log on to a website. At athenahealth, we are learning from other industries’ best practices to adapt and close the user experience gap for our own portal.

As patients become more powerful consumers in the healthcare marketplace, their expectation of communication and information exchange will only continue to increase. Patients will want easy, open access to their medical information. Other industries have cracked their own access issues.  You don’t have to fax your bank to get your latest statement, do you? Healthcare is still behind, but the portal is an essential component.  Healthcare, as with all other industries in our lives, needs a technology-first approach, not a technology-maybe approach.  Today, having a portal is a value add.  Tomorrow, it’s a must have.

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