'Everyone's doing portals': How Novant Health makes its portal stand out

Leveraging patient portals to boost patient engagement can be more than just a requirement for meaningful use or MACRA — it can be a strategy for improving population health initiatives, patient retention and care delivery.

For true patient engagement, simply launching a patient portal isn't enough. When Winston-Salem, N.C.-based Novant Health was planning its patient portal rollout alongside with its July 2011 Epic EHR implementation, the focus wasn't on the technological offering of the portal; rather, the portal was viewed as the means to an end of enhanced patient engagement. Strategic conversations were framed within the context of new, unique offerings to patients.

"Clearly we are making sure we have good systems, safe systems, quality systems for our patients — that's assumed. But what can we do to make the experience of the patient remarkable, and how do we differentiate ourselves from everybody else who's doing the same kind of stuff? Everybody's doing portals."

This trailblazer attitude has helped Novant Health grow its portal use among patients. The health system started rolling out MyChart in January 2012, and since then more than 625,000 Novant patients actively use MyChart today.

"If you were to look at the line plotted out, it's pretty much at a 45 degree angle, and that has never really dipped," Mr. Garrett says.

The health system started with self-scheduling capabilities allowing patients to directly make appointments in physicians' schedules. Mr. Garrett says this was an "early big win" for Novant Health. Not only was it popular with patients, but it freed up time for employees working in physician offices who no longer have to take phone calls to schedule appointments.

Novant Health has also integrated Apple HealthKit with MyChart, so patient-generated data is stored in the portal. Mr. Garrett says the health system is working with patients to improve hospital and billing statements within MyChart to better work for the patients.

All these offerings come from a strong working relationship with Epic, Mr. Garrett says. Not only does Mr. Garrett want to be on the forefront of innovative offerings — "We try to be first or certainly in the first handful of Epic customers to run out and do things," he says — but Novant Health will actually reach out to Epic to discuss ideas or new capabilities. While the system could develop capabilities in-house or find third-party vendors to fill those gaps, Novant instead turns to its EHR vendor.

"We say, 'Well why not Epic?'" Mr. Garrett says. "When we look at a capability or a need or an innovative idea, we first get a hold of our Epic folks if we don't know the answer and ask, 'Can Epic do this? If so, why aren't we doing it?'"

Continually adding new capabilities to the patient portal is what keeps patients coming back and demonstrating sustained use. Some of the newer features include population health outreach efforts, such as following up on discharge instructions or having care managers message them through the portal. Novant Health also uses the portal to do non-healthcare related outreach, like sending happy birthday messages.

All these added capabilities — and the ones still to come — create a tool that is much more than a patient portal. On its website, Novant Health refers to MyChart as a "health management tool" instead of a patient portal. This is something Mr. Garrett says is purposeful and encompasses how they want patients to use this resource to become and stay healthy.

"It's bigger than a portal," Mr. Garrett says. "At the end of the day, we want our patients to start taking care of their healthcare management….How do we help you take care of yourself?"

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