Portals done right are a cornerstone of patient engagement

May 25, 2017
Courtesy of Medfusion
By Kim Labow, CEO, Medfusion

Many healthcare providers place “improve patient engagement” at the top of their priority lists. It’s the topic of conversation at every trade show, on the pages of journals, and in the back offices of practices. But when practices and providers begin to consider an overall strategy for patient engagement, they’re wise to approach the big picture in a series of incremental steps. When providers find new and improved ways to connect with patients and then implement each one in a logical sequence, they stand out in a competitive market.

But where’s the best place to start? One way to build a strong foundation of patient engagement is through a user-friendly, effective online presence. And the cornerstone of that strong foundation is a modern, intuitive patient portal. Not your run-of-the-mill Meaningful Use kind of portal—but a patient-centric one that becomes the hub of the patient experience and practice efficiency.

Current consumer trends—and patients are indeed consumers—mean patients not only prefer to transact business online, they expect it. Surveys show that 82% of patients would select a doctor with online scheduling, even if it means fewer appointments to choose from.1 Today’s patients want to schedule appointments, pay bills, and request prescription refills online. They also expect those online interactions to be simple, seamless, and available 24/7. Trying to complete an online task that seems difficult or results in errors force patients to the old way of conducting business—picking up the phone and placing a call (during business hours). This added barrier to engagement often manifests in a greater no-show rate, lower chance of fully paying a bill, and fewer referrals. And it becomes an added burden on office staff.  When patients are empowered to interact online, anytime, it’s putting them to work for the practice—offloading administrative tasks to willing recipients.

What are some ways smart healthcare providers can harness or transform the power of online tools to improve patient engagement? And beyond the benefits of satisfied, loyal patients, how can providers justify the time and investment required when choosing, implementing, or switching to a new patient portal?

Think “patient first”

It’s logical to start thinking about patient engagement at the place where they have been directed for years—the patient portal. Portal adoption rates can vary dramatically with arguably world-class numbers as high as 86%,2 but most offices hover around 20-30%. The key to higher adoption often comes in usability and robustness—how well does the portal become an online presence for your office (not just a Meaningful Use check box).

What would happen if a patient finds a portal difficult to use and instead calls the office repeatedly? What would happen if a portal involves a complicated registration process and complex PIN while a practice down the street allows direct booking of appointments right off their website?  What if patients have to mail in checks for their balances instead of paying with the click of a button from the comfort of their sofa?

In looking at the online customer experience across industries, the companies who make that experience easy for consumers have become household names—consider “1-click” purchases of books or household items from Amazon. Or the no-risk, try-before-you-buy experience consumers have when buying eyeglasses from Warby Parker. Healthcare isn’t directly comparable to paper towels or reading glasses, of course, but patient engagement has been directly affected by what consumers have come to expect in their daily lives. Providers who don’t offer this kind of easy interaction can be at risk for higher attrition and lower patient satisfaction. Sixty-six percent of patients report they would trade the convenience of having a doctor nearby for the convenience of online scheduling.1

Satisfied patients, productive staff

When a practice puts patients first by adopting a patient experience platform that exceeds expectations, they may also realize benefits in their practice operations and efficiency. If a percentage of patients register for, and come to rely on, the self-service aspects of a portal, they are reducing the level of repetitive tasks for staff. Engaged portal users might schedule or change appointments, pay bills, review his or her lab results, and request a prescription refill. What does that mean for office staff?

When engaged patients schedule their own appointments, it can translate to reduced call volume and no-shows. When patients complete intake forms online—and they flow directly into the PM or EMR system, office staff can easily save 15 minutes per patient and cut down on errors caused by translating sloppy handwriting. And just a 20% increase in portal usage over a 12-month period can result in nearly a 5% increase in self-pay yield3 (while also reducing back-office staff required to send multiple statements).

Think about the before and after

Thoughtful portal implementation can enhance patient engagement, improve staff productivity, and help providers stand out from the competition. But what are some of the key points to consider when mapping a route to success? In short, look to the future and consider past experience. Providers who take such a before-and-after approach can transform “old-school” tasks into modern-day differentiators. Some potential benefits of a before-and-after approach include the following:
Before: Providers control schedules by requiring patients to call in for every appointment-related task. Monitors covered in sticky notes capture the rules about when providers and resources are available.
After: Patients are empowered to view, book, and reschedule available appointments online 24/7.  And practices retain schedule control by only offering certain types of appointments for patient self-scheduling, and by using an integrated solution, double-booking is eliminated.
Before: Staff spends time on repetitive, routine tasks and data entry.
After: Reduced phone traffic, time spent on collections, and form entry can mean increased staff satisfaction and re-allocation of their time to patient care.
Before: Long hold times may lead patients to abandon calls and even change providers.
After: Less frustration and attrition from current patients as well as tools to attract new, tech-savvy patients.

Build on the strong foundation

Gone are the days when a patient portal was nothing more than view, download, and transmit patient health data. Today’s portals are robust online patient experience platforms—offloading time-intensive, yet low-value, tasks from practice staff while empowering and delighting patients. Because present-day—and future—patients have a consumer mindset, a robust and easy-to-use portal has become not only a key part of doing business, but also the cornerstone in the strong foundation of patient engagement.


  1. Healthgrades Research: Consumer Perceptions of Scheduling Appointments with Physicians Online, December 2016 .
  2. West Monroe Partners, “No More Waiting Room: The Future of the Healthcare Customer Experience,” Nov. 28, 2016 .
  3. Becker’s Hospital Review, “Patient Portal Adoption Increases Collections, Patient Engagement: 3 Things You Need to Know,” April 4, 2016.