October 3, 2018

Best Practices for Managing Patient Portals

In our digital age, more and more patients expect to have online access to their personal health information, anytime and anywhere. Patient portals managed by healthcare providers are designed to meet this need and offer new ways to improve the quality of care. By supplying them, health organizations comply with standards required for achieving Meaningful Use Stage 2, in addition to extending communication beyond the hospital or doctor’s office visit. The impact is not just for your provider and patient; to be effective it must become part of your organization’s ongoing thought process and digital plan for the long term.

Your patient portal impacts nearly every department of your hospital or practice, as each one has information to share with patients and ownership in the portal’s success. This platform requires on-going involvement, rather than a one-time build, and it is an opportunity for many departments to work together in new ways. If you bring the right people to the table and ensure the right governance and documentation, your patient portal will not only improve patient care but also become a competitive advantage.

Steering Committee
The foundation of a good patient portal plan is the steering committee. This group is crucial in setting and evolving your strategy for patient experience so that it can grow with the product itself.

Who is on the steering committee? With so many processes and stakeholders involved in offering patients access to information, the portal needs to be a multidisciplinary effort with an approach that spans key functions. Recommended steering committee members include:

  • Head of Clinical (CMIO)
  • IT applications lead
  • IT security lead
  • Patient communications manager
  • Legal team representative
  • Marketing team representative
  • Finance team representative

Strategy Setting 
Define what you want to achieve over the short and long term. Your patient portal is a living and breathing system that must offer a seamless patient experience.

How will you determine the scope and phasing of services offered? What do you need to get started? Here are some key steps:

1. Identify Your Platform
By now, most healthcare organizations have invested in a vendor platform but is it being managed effectively? Are you happy with your selected platform? Choosing a major vendor system, such as Epic or Cerner, increases the likelihood of new team members and IT support personnel already knowing how it works, and the upgrade services the vendor provides are also beneficial.

In rare cases you may decide to build your own, but remember that you will need a system that can be easily updated to meet changing needs as well as government-mandated requirements.

As you make your platform choice or evaluate your current initial build, you’ll need to determine key operational and technology infrastructure components. What are your goals? What do your patients want?

2. Build a Roadmap 
Defining how and when to roll-out functionality can be the most challenging part of your strategy. Be sure to consider how you will enable patients to make appointments, ask questions to your staff, view medical reports and test results, and track invoices and payments.

You’ll also want to take into account best practices for measuring usage and performance. How will you know if the portal is performing as desired and what improvements are needed? Set KPIs within your roadmap for patient adoption and as new features are introduced. Expect that as you learn more about usage your roadmap will shift.

3. Create Your Team
Once you have decided on your platform and initial roadmap, you need the right team to develop and maintain your patient portal. There are many people needed behind the scenes to create and manage an application like this. How will this extra workload be carried?

Roles and tasks to consider:

  • Application/Product Manager – This is the person who owns responsibility for the portal and reports to the steering committee. They lead the rest of the portal team.
  • Project Manager – Tracks tasks and assignments to make sure projects move forward, on time and on budget. This individual plays a critical role in documenting project requirements and progress.
  • Integration – It’s important that your portal can effectively align with other data systems in your organization, in order to provide accurate and complete information to patients without duplicating efforts.
  • Security – Sharing this type of information requires strong security protocols to protect patient privacy as well as your own infrastructure.
  • Developers – It’s helpful to engage developers who specialize in supporting the vendor you have selected.
  • UX – What will the user experience look like? How will it align with your brand? How can it be designed to be user-friendly for your patients?
  • Email – Plan how portal-based communications will be created and managed, whether they be ad hoc messages between healthcare providers and patients or automated messages.
  • Training – Ensuring team members know how to use the portal properly is critical to a successful deployment. If they don’t enter information regularly and correctly, the tool is a wasted investment.
  • BI/Reporting – You’ll need to make sure that you have the right clinical and consumer analytics, network inclusion, and data to support decision making.
  • Customer Service – Plan to have dedicated Help Desk personnel for your portal, rather than relying on the hospital’s Customer Service Center, which typically only focuses on billing and would be unable to answer questions about the portal’s features and functionality.

These roles may be filled by permanent staff members, or supported by contract workers when particular specializations are needed on a temporary basis. You may also want to consider engaging a consulting team to provide expert advice and help with governance and documentation.

4. Deployment and Adoption
The deployment plan is not just for your initial launch. Plan carefully for testing and training with each new feature. Introducing it to your employees and patients is a project in itself. Just like any new application, it’s about making sure people see the value of the tool and know how to use it. Ultimately, the use of the system will indicate its success.

Creating patient user groups is a helpful way to both test and get the word out about your portal and its features. Their feedback is vital not only to your developers but also to your steering committee, as it will help them make sure their strategies are meeting patient needs.

You can’t expect 100% of employees and patients will use the portal perfectly from the start. Set goals for adoption based on reasonable milestones. Track incremental progress in usage statistics and watch for trends to help guide your roadmap and communications.

5. Ongoing Maintenance and Messaging
The patient portal can become a critical tool when communicating with patients. Not only does it give them access to their personal data, if configured, it can provide a direct 2-way communication channel for patients and customer service representatives. It can also streamline your business processes by allowing patients to schedule directly with their providers or departments where they need to be seen. This provides great opportunities to enable stronger communication and messages that are important to both the patient and the health system.

Take the time to plan for long-term support. Do your customer service representatives have the right skills to manage inquiries from a patient portal that may include everything from password resets to scheduling appointments to disputing a bill? Do you have the right marketing messages set up for the different channels on the portal?

Having a successful patient portal requires pre-planning and ongoing monitoring. Closely monitoring patient feedback and being willing to adjust are critical to that success.

Committing to Your Patient Portal
Remember that your patient portal needs to be able to evolve over time, as you learn from patient and employee feedback and from data analytics. Changes in regulations, new clinical best practices, and technological advances will also affect your portal. So don’t consider this a “one and done” project. Just like your patients, your portal needs ongoing care to support its optimum health.

It’s important to keep your portal technology as up to date as possible, so that you can more easily transition when a critical change is required to maintain compliance. For example, as APIs become more commonly used to support interoperability between patient portals and other sources of information, regulations may set standards to define how data is accessible to patients and providers, and yet still secure across multiple systems. And the timeframe for becoming compliant to such regulations could be as narrow as a few months.

Your patient portal is worth the long-term commitment. The more you can engage with your patients in helpful ways, the better your relationship with them will be, and the stronger their loyalty. This becomes a competitive advantage, as patients see that your health system “knows” them best and provides the best levels of both communication and care. Now more than ever, patients have the ability to choose where they receive their healthcare services. How you share information with them will be a key point in their perception of how you meet their needs.

Oxford Has The Expertise You Need
If you need assistance with your patient portal, Oxford can connect you to the right expertise. Click here to contact us.

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