Patient Portals and Secure Messaging: Making Meaningful Use Meaningful for Patients

Meaningful Use Stage 2“My lab results were 5.2. What does that mean?”  That’s how my father started a recent phone call to me.  Let me preface this by explaining that I’m an English major, and while I’ve worked in the healthcare IT field for over 10 years, I have no medical training whatsoever.

“What was the test?” I asked.  My father told me.

“Never heard of that,” I said. “Let’s Google it.”

I looked up the test and found that 5.2 was right in the middle of the “normal” range.  Good news.

This conversation with my father, though, brought out the project manager in me. Under Stage 2 Meaningful Use requirements, physicians not only must provide online access to records and be able to exchange secure messages electronically with patients, they also must ensure that at least 5% of patients actually use both of those features.

The hospital my father went to successfully implemented the first part of this requirement: They have a patient portal that provides online access to records, and my father was able to log in and get the information he wanted. I learned in a follow-up conversation with my father’s provider that secure electronic messaging is available through the portal – which meets the second part of the Stage 2 requirement.

This brings us to the 3rd part of this Meaningful Use Stage 2 requirement that at least 5% of patients use both the portal and secure messaging features. Had my father known about the secure messaging option, he could have sent a message to his physician asking about the test results. But since he wasn’t aware of the secure messaging feature, my father didn’t count towards the hospital’s 5% minimum.

So how can a hospital or physician practice not only implement their patient portal and secure messaging, but meet the Stage 2 core objectives that at least 5% of patients use both of those features?

  1. Make sure the patient portal offers practical features that the patients will use the most.  These typically include patient reminders, on-line payments, prescription refills and patient forms.
  2. Make sure the vendor has easy links to secure messaging on the various screens.
  3. Have an effective and continuing communication plan. For hospitals, this should involve close coordination with the Marketing/Communications Department.  For smaller clinics and physician offices, it may be a collaborative effort with providers and office staff.

The communication plan for a patient portal should include the basics that are part of any standard project communication plan: Who, What, Where, When and How.

Who is the audience?  In this case, the patient, of course. (A separate communication plan should be developed for clinical and administrative staff in hospitals and physician offices).

What will be communicated? Communicating about different elements of the patient portal opens the opportunity for ongoing communications without duplicating information. Perhaps the first communication will be about the portal in general (how to get to it, logging on, an overview of features and functionality). The next might be about prescription refills, the one after that about appointment reminders, and so on.  Identify the key features that should be emphasized and develop specific communications and messages for each. Each communication should include information about secure messaging.

Where will communications occur? Although this certainly ties into the “how,” there may be opportunities that are overlooked without this consideration. Certainly hospital waiting rooms, admitting desks, patient rooms, physician offices/waiting rooms and clinic exam rooms are obvious choices, as is the public facing website.  But is your hospital or clinic sponsoring an upcoming community event? What about wellness classes where handouts or brochures could be provided?

When will communications about the patient portal occur? For each of the communication methods defined above, identify a frequency and timeline.  Specify the number of communications, and over what period of time.  Example might include three communications about refilling prescriptions over a one month period, using three different communication methods.  Which leads us to the “how.”

How will information about the patient portal be communicated? Make sure multiple communication methods are used.  Examples include the public website, emails to patients, mailers or newsletters, posters in key areas, videos running on monitors in waiting rooms, handouts given during clinic appointments or at hospital discharge, and reminders on all types of printed communications.  Provide specific examples or scenarios where patients can not only use the portal, but also use secure messaging to communicate with their providers.

Making Meaningful Use Meaningful to Patients

We often tell our clients that any project, technology or otherwise, is only as successful as the end users perceive it to be.  With a patient portal and secure messaging, the patients are the end users.

Hospitals and clinics that incorporate thoughtful, detailed communication plans into these implementations are likely to see greater success meeting the Stage 2 Meaningful User requirements around actual patient usage of online access and secure messaging, while also improving patient satisfaction.