The patient portal has evolved beyond patient data access, giving patients the functionality to complete intake tasks digitally and easing pressure from front-end staffing shortages.
March 23, 2022 – Beleaguered by growing staffing shortages, healthcare organizations can turn to an unlikely tool to relieve the pressure: the patient portal. No longer just a place to enable patient data access, most patient portals now have expanded capabilities to support wraparound patient engagement.
Across all departments, clinics and hospitals are staring down a steep workforce shortage. In January 2022, researchers wrote in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings that healthcare worker resignation rates will likely skyrocket in the next two years. This trend is mostly focused on nurses, physicians, and advanced practice practitioners, but still, about 14 per cent of clerical staff and around 7 per cent of administrators voiced intent to resign in the study.
Healthcare organizations need to find a way to deal with the burnout that is pushing so many to consider leaving the medical field and to cope when there are fewer hands left to do the work. And according to vice president of healow, Rakhee Laker the patient engagement app from eClinicalWorks, the patient portal stands poised to fill in this gap.
“The staff shortages can be definitely alleviated by looking at the efficiency that can be brought in, let’s say, in the front office or in the mid-office,” Laker said in a phone call with PatientEngagementHIT.
Patient portals can aggregate a lot of the patient-facing functions, particularly those that happen during patient intake and registration, into a single place and filter them directly into the EHR, Laker pointed out.
Nevertheless, the patient portal does seem like an unlikely hero in this climate of staff shortages. The technology first stemmed out of the EHR as a way to facilitate patient data access and was a core part of the meaningful use programmes.
“Patient portals were viewed as meaningful use criteria to make sure that the patients had data access. But over time, people realized there was utility,” Laker pointed out. “They were ways to connect with providers and accomplish something that was not urgent. It could start off as something like a refill request or even pulling up my visit summary or look up my appointment and things like that became a utility.”
“Over time, the way that a patient connects has evolved,” she added.
And so, the suite of tools housed in the patient portal evolved, too. No longer was the patient portal simply a web browser site where patients could pull up their medical records. Rather, EHR vendors redesigned the tools to include tertiary patient engagement functions, like secure direct messaging, self-scheduling, prescription refill requests, and even the digital completion of online forms, like HIPAA waivers and new patient registration.
Of course, other ad hoc solutions cropped up alongside this, Laker acknowledged. Vendors specializing in online appointment scheduling, for example, entered the market. But for Laker, having each of those patient engagement tools centralized in the patient portal, which for eClinicalWorks also lives as an app called healow, helps improve and streamline the patient experience. The patient portal is a tool from their provider whom they trust, so patients are more compelled to complete tasks on the tool.
It’s also good from an operational efficiency standpoint, Laker added.
“Anytime you bring in a new technology to bring in some sort of convenience to your consumer, it should have an operational efficiency on the provider side as well,” she stated. “What we focus on is making sure that anything that we build has a direct operational efficiency that comes in terms of the solution.”
“For example, a payment solution,” Laker offered. “If a patient’s paying online for their copay as part of their intake process, it has to link to that visit. It has to say that this was a copay for this visit.”
When that online payment happens on the patient portal, the direct link into the EHR means the payment will be associated with the correct visit. That means better revenue collection for the provider, more billing transparency for the patient, and overall better operational efficiency.
That’s paying dividends now that the healthcare industry is dealing with immense staffing shortages, Laker added. The patient portal creates efficiencies to support front-office staff who are resigning at alarming rates.
Laker said healthcare organizations are mostly using a handful of patient portal features to create that operational efficiency. Foremost, self-scheduling tools free up the call center. And as patients continue to stream into the clinic to catch up on preventive services missed during the onset of the pandemic, this is key, Laker added.
“Soon after that, there are appointment reminders that go automatically, that patients should be able to receive whether it was three days before the appointment or two days before the appointment,” she continued. “And with that, they can actually complete their check-in. That’s better than getting that clipboard or standing at a kiosk or any of that. You can reduce the lines by actually having them complete the check-in.”
That intake functionality should be complemented by the pre-service payments mentioned above, which Laker said can also happen on the patient portal.
And even after the visit, the patient portal can streamline patient communications to ease the burden off of staff. The digital tool is capable of processing prescription refills, for example, meaning the patient doesn’t have to call and speak directly with a clinic staffer.
“Now, when you take away that phone call and wait for five or 10 minutes, that triaging and that workflow is much more efficient when you have somebody being able to look through a queue and go through all of it systematically and complete what is needed,” Laker explained.
Laker acknowledged that higher patient engagement rates with the portal app likely stemmed from the pandemic. COVID-19 forced patients and providers to embrace digital health, particularly telehealth, and that opened doors to other patient engagement tools. Alongside a televisit, patients might get the link to their patient portals and from there, there’s been an uptick in curiosity, plus some necessity with vaccinations and tests.
“You were suddenly presented with all this different technology that said, ‘Oh, I could do it from this. I could actually look up my visit summary. Let me take a look at when was the last time I saw my doctor,’” Laker remarked. “The awareness of overall health has gone up, which meant consumers started looking at how they can get access to what they’re looking for and make sure that they’re up to date.”
That necessity, plus the penchant for consumerism that has begun to shape medicine, has opened the door for more patient portal usage—Laker said eClinicalWorks has seen a surge in healow downloads. As these trends continue, EHR vendors and providers alike will need to ensure the patient portal still meets patient needs.
By leveraging the patient portal as a practice efficiency tool, organizations can shore up problems with staffing shortages while also delivering the immediate care that consumers want.