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For More Satisfied Patients, Try an Online Portal

Marianne Aiello, for HealthLeaders Media, July 21, 2010

I recently found out that my new primary care physician, whom I chose at random at the behest of my health insurer, doesn't use a patient portal. I can't email her or get my lab results online. For someone like me—and a growing number of American consumers—who do most of their banking, shopping, and communicating online, is a major inconvenience that will likely become a deal breaker as portals become more common. And patient portals are becoming increasingly popular among physicians, too.

Online portals allow patients to communicate with physicians, view lab results, schedule appointments, and share other patient information within a secure online platform. Electronic doctor-patient communication is a growing trend, with 39% of physicians using e-mail, secure message, or instant message to share information with patients in 2009, a 14% increase since 2006, according to Manhattan Research. When implemented and marketed correctly, portals can improve patient and physician satisfaction.

"I think it's a really great tool to use for patients who are working and don't have time during the regular 9-to-5 day to call us on the phone," said Barbara Fahl-Watkins, administrator at Heart & Vascular Center of Arizona, a five-facility cardiovascular clinic based out of Phoenix, in the July issue of HealthLeaders magazine. "We have many patients—even some that are out of the country—who would love to be able to e-mail us in a secure fashion, so the patient portal really meets that goal."

HVCA marketers created wall posters and flyers to inform patients about the portal when it launched in March. About 70 people signed up in the first month, there were approximately 200 by mid-May, and Fahl-Watkins expects enrollment to pick up soon and take some burden off staff due to less phone volume.

And if healthcare can learn anything from other industries, it's that consumers don't want to spend time on the phone looking for information—especially when they can find what they're looking for in a couple of clicks.

This theory has proven true at Elmhurst (IL) Clinic, an eight-facility multispecialty group, where about 10,000 patients have signed up for its patient portal after 18 months. Patients learned about the features though an integrated ad campaign and word-of-mouth marketing.

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