Urology patient portals: Worthwhile and easier than you think

September 1, 2013

We’re all too familiar with the frustrations that come with the implementation of an EHR. As it turns out, though, practices frequently neglect the part of the system that gives you a return on your investment almost immediately: the patient portal.

If the mention of “electronic health record” or “EHR” immediately brings to mind words like “costly,” “painful,” and, worst of all, “negative return on investment,” chances are we’ve got some good news for you. We’re all too familiar with the frustrations that come with the implementation of any EHR; we see them in almost every practice we help. As it turns out, though, practices frequently neglect the part of the system that gives you a return on your investment almost immediately: the patient portal.

This article shows you how a patient portal can streamline patient communication and improve your bottom line.

While there are a great many variations in how EHRs implement patient portals, they all contain features that allow your patients to complete tasks that you would otherwise be paying your staff to do. When our firm conducts an on-site practice assessment, one of our priorities is to understand what tasks are consuming staff resources and to develop strategies to increase efficiency and profitability. Front desk staff in particular typically engage in highly repetitive tasks, eg, giving directions to the office over the phone, booking and confirming appointments, returning calls, etc. An effectively implemented patient portal can substantially reduce staff demand and improve your patients’ experience with your practice.

A quick-and-dirty time study may be all that is required to set reasonable priorities with respect to the order in which patient portal features should be rolled out. You should have at least a rough idea of how much staff time you expect to save (or revenue you expect to capture) and how much time and money each feature will take to build out within your EHR. Your vendor may even be willing to refer you to other practices that have rolled out these features. A quick conversation with someone that has recently gone through an implementation similar to what you are considering can prevent a lot of headaches.

Often, you can save significantly by using the functionality designed to reduce no-shows, specifically a well-refined appointment reminder system. Most practices are nowhere near the 5% target rate for no-shows. Adding online appointment scheduling is a great convenience for patients and can also free up staff time.

Automate intake forms

Another great opportunity exists in automating intake forms for new patients, which are particularly time consuming to enter manually. What type of difference can this make to your bottom line? One Minneapolis-based pediatric surgery practice reported that it expects to save over $23,000 per year simply by automating new patient intake forms (J Med Pract Manage 2012; 28:183-6). This number is expected to grow from year to year as more patients embrace electronic communication. (The practice currently communicates electronically with about 30% of patients.) By implementing just these two features, even small practices could see gains in efficiency corresponding to many tens of thousands of dollars.

What type of clinical functionality your patient portal should offer is a tougher question to answer. Physicians are rightly wary of having yet another unreimbursed set of tasks. If providers are to communicate to patients via the patient portal, it’s essential that revenue be properly captured, which means providers and billers must be confident that they are on the same page in accounting for the services rendered and must understand what type of reimbursement is available from their payers for electronic communication.

Understand security features

Generally, due to HIPAA and security issues, communicating with patients via unsecured email is not recommended. It’s important to understand the security features of communicating through your portal before using it to interact with patients about clinical matters. On the plus side, secured electronic communication through the patient portal may facilitate integrating communications into the patient’s health record, which is otherwise a slow, cumbersome task that is prone to error.

Implementing the prescription request functionality within a portal can also increase efficiency and smooth workflow. Patients can quickly make a request without lingering on hold, and you and your staff can address all of the prescription requests at a time that’s convenient to you.

We encourage our clients to embrace the patient portal as a way of off-loading some of your practice’s most repetitive tasks. If your practice is like most, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what a patient portal can do for your patients and your practice.UT

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