What keeps patients from adopting patient portals?

Patient portals are widely viewed as a way to enable patient engagement. In reality, portals haven’t lived up to that promise.

Although the federal government has encouraged portal adoption through mandates such as Meaningful Use, utilization rates remain low. A 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that while 90% of providers offer access to a patient portal, less than one-third of patients are accessing their own health information. Among the limited number of patients who enrolled, even fewer use it regularly.

Many providers view portals as a box to check either to meet Meaningful Use standards or because they think their patients expect them. But those who focus on the patient portal as a technology solution rather than a valuable tool for patients risk irrelevance.

Patients today expect more from healthcare and that means organizations must work to foster a deeper patient-provider relationship. Going beyond basic portal functionality and enabling meaningful, two-way communication and delivering timely, actionable information to patients can be a powerful way to engage.

Barriers to patient portal adoption

Providers must understand the barriers that prevent patients from adopting and using portals. From there, they can devise a strategy that keeps patients engaged in their health and connected to the health system.

Patients see limited need. The GAO report found that very few patients actually think they need the portal. Individuals who are generally healthy and not managing a chronic condition may not see the need to regularly access their medical records via the portal.

Patients managing a chronic disease or multiple chronic conditions who visit healthcare providers regularly see more value in being able to access lab results and message physicians.

Poor user experience. Many portals don’t engage patients because they aren’t designed with the patient’s needs in mind. Products that are clunky, difficult to navigate or require complicated log in credentials will see minimal adoption. In fact, a 2016 Software Advice poll found that 41% of those polled said they had given up on using their portals after becoming overwhelmed with an inability to navigate options.

And, as consumers demand more convenient ways to access their physicians and their health information, portals that are not optimized for mobile will continue to see lower adoption rates.

Low health literacy. Patient health literacy also plays a role in portal adoption. Only 12% of patients have at least proficient health literacy, according to HHS statistics. Just as patients want a portal interface that is easily navigable, they also want to understand the information. Patients with limited health literacy may struggle to understand medical terminology in their visit summaries and lab results.

A focus on offering portals along with other digital tools that are useable for all patient populations is vital.

Limited two-way communication. The functionality offered in most portals is very basic and episodic, such as checking on an upcoming appointment or the availability of lab results. While most portals have basic messaging, they don’t truly encourage two-way communication or provide real-time feedback nor do they prompt patients on a daily basis to check in on their progress.

Further, more than a third of participants in the Software Advice poll said that even when they sent messages to their providers, administrative staff rarely responded in a timely manner, if at all.

Giving patients what they want

Patients who are engaged in their care tend to have better health outcomes and lower costs. And while patient portals are often viewed as tools to improve patient engagement and strengthen the patient-provider relationship, their low adoption and usage rates reveal that they aren’t functioning as designed.

One of the keys to creating an impactful patient engagement experience is to provide patients with a platform that they actually love to use. Among patients using GetWell Loop before and after a hospital admission, 74% use Loop when invited and access it on an average of 11 days over a 30 day period* to manage their health.

In order to deliver a meaningful and engaging experience, healthcare organizations must think more broadly about their overall digital health strategy. They must understand what their patients are seeking from digital engagement and invest in the necessary infrastructure and programs to improve care and the patient experience.

In our next post, we’ll examine the essential components for launching a digital health strategy to keep patients connected and engaged.

*Includes care plans 30 days or longer and truncates to the 30 days surrounding the procedure date (2 weeks prior to 2 weeks post).