Thinking outside the meaningful use checked box – 5 steps for making a patient portal truly engaging

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As we are all well aware, the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Programs provide financial incentives for providers to show that they are "meaningfully using" certified EHR technology to improve patient care.

But how do we make that leap? And with what resources? Patient satisfaction scores, readmission rates, hospital acquired conditions, patient safety indicators, and other data points populate the dashboards and expand the task lists of providers at every level. As hospital leaders consider the hard choices ahead, they are awed by the challenge of delivering more satisfying, higher quality care for more people than ever before, despite the harsh financial realities of the current and future U.S. healthcare situation.

We all know that the more engaged patients are in their care, the better their outcome will be. The first step toward incentivizing patients to interact with portals is to make this technology truly engaging. Information alone, no matter how personal or detailed, is not engaging, and it certainly will not improve population health. Think about the fact that in 2013, 50% of hospitals and 40% of physicians offered patient portals. These portals offer a great deal of information: medications, appointments, bills and payments, for example. Some offer secure messaging and appointment scheduling. While these features are all a great start, and patients find it quite convenient to have access to all of this information, it is not driving different behavior. There's much more to do in order to move the health performance needle on the road to engagement.

For instance, a cardiac patient who has recently been discharged from the hospital can view or change his appointment via his new cardiologist's portal, and he can even find his specialist's office through this technology. But is the physician using the patient portal to coach this patient through a special diet and exercise program, or helping him to set health goals? Not likely.

Conversely, if we take our interactive hospital technology and find ways to use it to personalize patients' experiences, how much more engaged would they be? We can, for example, automate delivery of clinician-prescribed multimedia patient education, or help patients set condition-specific goals, to make them feel like their doctor truly cares about them as people. Continuity of content, context, and interface between the inpatient and ambulatory experience is a logical approach to maximize ease of use and repetition that builds retention; not to mention the branding implications of a seamless user experience. Imagine that same cardiac patient who is sent an exercise regiment via his patient portal, and then uses his Fitbit to complete his daily prescribed workout. A congratulatory email from his physician each time he reaches a goal would take engagement to the next level.

So this begs the question: what should a patient portal look like in order to be truly engaging?

  1. Keep it simple. Most of today's portals are cluttered, making them difficult for even the most technically savvy patient to navigate.
  2. Build your portal with mobile use in mind from the get-go. Most patients will access the portal via a mobile device, so be sure that you have designed it for mobile users, rather than simply shrinking down your full site.
  3. Your portal should dynamically update content based on prescriptions from a patient's caretakers. If the cardiologist wants his patient to walk two miles today, instead of the 1.5 he was prescribed earlier in the month, that task should float to the top.
  4. Make it easy for patients to interact person-to-person with their care team, including doctors, nurses, family, and friends who are involved in the patient's recovery, in a HIPAA-compliant way. Perhaps a patient needs to ask his physician a quick question but knows doing so doesn't really require a full visit. Or, maybe he wants to send a photo of a rash to see if it's anything to be concerned about. Video-conferencing capabilities not only take convenience to the next level, but they also keep patients involved in their care.
  5. Enable the care team to track a patient's progress. Did the patient walk the prescribed two miles yesterday? Doctors, nurses, or family members can log in and see, and then encourage the patient to reach his goals.

EHR systems provide us with a wealth of information, and we have rooms full of technology at our disposal. All of these assets can easily be used to assist our patients in preventing disease, complications, and readmissions. It is up to us, leaders in healthcare, to do everything in our power to move this industry forward by truly engaging our patients in their care.

I marvel at the mechanical wonders of the fantastic million-dollar robotic surgery devices that are featured on highway billboards everywhere and at the inspiring (and expensive) mission/vision television ad campaigns. But I scan the media for the pioneering hospitals that will first seize the opportunity to attract patients who actively seek engagement in their own care. These people will beat a path to providers who embrace their eager and active participation in care, and they'll tell their friends. Nobody in their right mind walks through a provider's door if they don't absolutely expect excellent clinical care. However, the time is coming when those patients will drive past (or even fly over) a provider for alternate clinical care delivered by a team that has paid more than lip service to patient engagement by making it a core strategy in their quest to improve health.

Jeff Fallon leads Oneview Healthcare's North American team and is responsible for strategy and growth. His passion for patient engagement was ignited through his work with some of the leading hospital systems that are transforming healthcare quality, efficiency, and satisfaction through actively engaging their patients in their own care.


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