So, you finally set up the patient portal for your medical practice. You trained office staff to use it and spread the good news to your patients. Now you can just sit back, relax, and count those relevant meaningful use objectives fulfilled, right?
Think again. The biggest challenge is still ahead of you: How do you get patients to actually use and engage with your patient portal?
This year, eligible providers who don’t meet the requirements for Meaningful use, stage 2 will suffer the 1% Medicare penalty. While stage 2 has 20 core objectives, arguably the most challenging ones are: 1) 50% of your patients must be able to access their health information online in a timely manner, and 2) more than 5% of patients must actually engage providers’ patient portals. Not only do your patients need to be enrolled in your patient portal, at least 5% need to actually be using it.
Patient portals can be great tools for engaging your patients, and can even help save you time when patients use secure messaging. Still, getting your practice’s patient portal set-up and actually getting patients to use it are two entirely different challenges. Here are some tips from other doctors that will have your patients on your patient portal in no time.
1) Bulk enrollment.
Having trouble getting users to sign-up? Try a bulk enrollment method. Pull the email addresses for any patients who haven’t enrolled in your patient portal and then upload them into the system (you'll need to verify your patient portal has a bulk upload feature). Then send a series of emails to the patients encouraging them to pick a username and password. Some patient portals may also allow you to assign usernames and temporary passwords for your patients to automatically enroll them. Then, send a series of emails welcoming patients to the portal and showing them how to access it. If you use this tactic, remember that some emails are likely to end up in patients’ spam folders.
2) Get the whole office involved.
A recent study published in the Annals of Family Medicine found patient use of patient portals soared when all the office staff got involved. While patients place value on their doctors’ instructions, they spend most of their office visit interacting with receptionists, nurses, and medical assistants. Your staff members have a real opportunity to promote the patient portal throughout the patient's visit. Every staff member should have a script to talk up the patient portal to patients, and should be ready to list off the portal’s benefits. You could even try having staff wear buttons that say, “Ask me about [name of your patient portal system].”
Asheville Eye Associates had incredible success when they used this strategy; by the end, nearly 20% of their patients were actively using the portal to initiate messaging and appointment requests. Denise Fridl, Asheville Eye Associates' chief performance officer, details their process:
'When patients call for an appointment, we tell them that they can make an appointment online through our patient portal, which will automatically send them an appointment reminder. We also explain that they can complete or review their history online, which will help expedite their appointment. After each appointment, we send our patients an e-mail that requests that they preregister for their next appointment through our portal. At this time, we also remind them that they can access their clinical summary online. And patients who are prescribed contact lenses are referred to the portal, where they can place orders and view their renewals."
3) Promote the patient portal at every patient interaction.
Look at every patient interaction as an opportunity to promote the patient portal. If a patient calls in to schedule an appointment, have the receptionist explain that next time they can schedule an appointment online, and even receive appointment reminders by email. When patients are checking out, make sure staff say they’ll be able to pay their bills online. And, before you leave the exam room, remind them that they’ll be able to access any lab results and a clinical summary (or other materials, relevant to your practice) through the portal.
“I’lI warn them, 'You're going to be getting a summary of today's office visit and when the labs come in we'll send them.' There is a learning curve for them and we try to remind them so they can access their information this way." Peter Bettonville, MD.
4) Use every patient handout or marketing collateral to promote the patient portal.
Apply that same tactic to any paperwork or handout you give to patients. Add a line to bills that says patients can pay online using the portal. Include a note on patient education flyers that they can access more helpful information in their portal. Make sure your patient portal is also clearly advertised on your marketing collateral, and your practice website, if you have one.
“The new patient packet offers a good opportunity to educate your patients about what your portal can do and all of the advantages it has to offer.” Oregon Eye Consultants administrator, Joy Woodke, COE, OCS.
5) Market the benefits, not the features.
Sure, you’ve been telling patients all about the patient portal, but are you marketing the portal the right way? Whenever you describe the patient portal to your patients, explain how it benefits them. Don’t just tell them the patient portal has “secure messaging” and an “appointment calendar.” Instead, say, “you can use it to talk directly with your doctor or send an urgent message when our office is closed.” Or, “you can even make an appointment online instead of trying to get through on our phone.” Make it clear to your patients that using the portal is a win for both of you.
6) Promote changes or new features.
Adopting a patient portal is a huge project, and it’s likely to need some tweaking and updating after your first launch. If you add a new feature (like, say appointment scheduling) or update the layout to make it more user-friendly, make sure you advertise these changes to your patients. A patient who initially logged on and was frustrated by bugs or a difficult layout might be encouraged by news of an updated design.
7) Encourage older patients to use it too.
Don’t assume that your older, less tech-savvy patients are a lost cause when it comes to patient portal adoption. The same study we cited earlier found patients with chronic conditions were most likely to engage with patient portals. That means many older patients, who are more likely to have chronic conditions, are probably interested in using your patient portal. Dr. Alex Krist, the author of the study and an associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Population Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, debunks the myth that patient portals are only for younger patients: “It was interesting to see that a key patient driver for getting online was the patient having a chronic condition. This meant that older patients were more likely to get online. We are repeatedly told that patient portals are great - but only for younger, more tech-savvy patients. We, along with other researchers, have shown this is not true.”
While elderly patients may need a little more help navigating the patient portal, they’re also your most motivated and engaged users.
8) Fill your patient portal with information customized to each patient's needs.
It makes sense — patients are more likely to use a patient portal if it’s filled with useful tools and valuable information that’s specific to their conditions and needs. Instead of searching the web for information of questionable quality, they’ll know any information in the portal is coming straight from their doctor.
9) Give patients an added incentive.
If none of these tactics is working for you, try an old-fashioned financial incentive. Offer patients 5% off the first medical bill they pay using the patient portal. Or, enter their name into a monthly prize drawing if they schedule an appointment online. Chances are, once your patients get through the initial login and orientation, the hardest part is over. Any fears about using a new technology will fade. And, they’ll see first-hand all those benefits you’ve been telling them about.
10) Continue to promote well after the first launch.
Ok, so it’s been 6 months since you launched the patient portal. Do you still need promote it?
Yes! Even if you’ve had patient portals on your mind for what seems like forever, it takes time for your patients to adjust and start using a new system. Plus, some of your more infrequent patients may not have been into the office since the launch. Be patient, and keep up all your promotion efforts until you’re satisfied with the numbers.
This also doesn’t mean you need to mail an endless supply of promotional collateral. After the first big push, keep collateral in your office to handout as needed. Continue to have staff prompt patients about the patient portal. If your practice staff complains of feeling like broken records, change up their scripts to ask whether patients have used the portal yet, rather than whether they’ve heard about it before.
The real secret to getting your patients online and using your portal? Patient awareness. If your patients know the portal’s there, see how easy it is to use, and understand how the portal benefits them, your engagement numbers will shoot through the roof.
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