Patient portal advancements create a future of greater health information access
The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) wants to simplify patients’ access to and use of their electronic health information. Provisions of the ONC Cures Act Final Rule call for standards-based interfaces that can be leveraged by applications to help patients manage their health information. Ultimately, ONC expects individuals to use their information across patient portals offered by different healthcare providers.
Research shows that ONC’s plan is making progress. In 2020, about 60 percent of patient portal users reported being able to exchange secure messages with a provider. Half of portal users could view clinical notes written by a provider. Additionally, the portion of individuals who electronically shared their health information with a provider increased by 7 percent points from 2017.
The 2021 Digital Health Most Wired Survey (DHMW) reveals more recent detail on portal utilization. At acute-care organizations, 83 percent of unique patients accessed their portal in 2021, up from 74 percent in the prior year. At ambulatory facilities, patient portal utilization reached 90 percent in 2021, compared to 76 percent in 2020. Further, more than 80 percent of patients were able to access educational materials in non-English languages through their portal in 2021, signaling improvement in health information equity.
Building on portals’ potential
At the same time, however, healthcare organizations still have plenty of untapped opportunity for enhancing patient engagement by assimilating user-generated health data. Personal health-tracking data from patient wearables was integrated with a patient portal at about 55 percent of ambulatory facilities in 2021, according to DHMW.
Moreover, ONC’s data show patients using various methods for gaining portal access. While 78 percent of patients accessed their portal by computer, nearly 40 percent connected by using a smartphone health app in 2020. Notably, those who used both a computer and an app to access their health information did so more frequently than those who used only one access method. Accordingly, hospitals and health systems should consider providing access to electronic health information via multiple devices.
Other factors to think about when shaping portal-usage strategy include patients’ geography and age. The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 89 percent of patients who had used a portal within a one-year period lived in an urban area, as opposed to the 11 percent of users who lived in a rural area. Regarding age cohorts, patients aged 51-64 led the way, with 28 percent of users, followed by patients aged 41-50 (24 percent). In contrast, younger individuals (aged 18-40) make up only about one-third of portal users.
As portals continue to develop, healthcare entities will expand patients’ on-demand access to electronic health information, including clinical notes, test results and medications. Just over the horizon, patients will increasingly choose apps to assemble and read their records, compare care costs, understand treatments, and learn about expected health outcomes.
Frank Irving is a Philadelphia-based content writer and communications consultant specializing in healthcare, technology and sports.