Last month marked the end of our first year with our web portal. It has been a steep but worthwhile learning curve. Similar to every other component of our IT system there were many bumps along the way. Here are some observations worth sharing:
- If you build it – and promote it – they will come. There is no question that patients in our North Atlanta market like the portal. Over the first 12 months 12,518 patients have signed up and completed over 130,000 health, demographic and general consent forms. Participation has increased steadily as we have refined web page usability and improved the reliability of the system. Subjectively I think about 2/3 of my new patients are using the portal to enter their demographic and personal health information prior to their initial appointment.
- Overpromotion backfires. Our telephone-greeting message says, “To schedule an appointment, dial 0 or go to www.entofga.com.” Sounds reasonable enough, but patients have misinterpreted this message as meaning that we don’t want to talk to them.
- If it doesn’t work, patients get angry – with good reason. Nothing is more frustrating than spending 45 minutes filling out all your information at home and then getting handed the same forms on paper at the office because your online data was lost. The IT folks seem to think if the explanation for the failure is fancy enough that will make everything OK. It doesn’t.
- Patients who choose not to use the portal at home don’t want to use it in the waiting room, either. We have tried iPads, laptops and desktop kiosks. We have trained our front office folks to promote it and even “walk patients through” the portal. Nothing has worked. We have considered recruiting those patients with a different technology such as scanned #2 lead pencil bubble forms, at least for the discrete data.
- Patients have little interest in using the portal as an ongoing tool. After the initial creation of the account, data entry and first appointment, they rarely use the portal again. Last month with over 12,000 patients enrolled we got only 6 prescription refill requests and 24 “ask the doctor” questions. Appointment requests were slightly better at 134. Our telephone appointment schedulers tell me they frequently get calls from folks who made an appointment request online but then immediately call for the same appointment because they were not comfortable with the online appointment concept. One could argue that this is unique to our specialty practice or that the online forms and workflow need improving. That may be true, but I am convinced that at least a part of this phenomenon represents cultural pushback from patients.
- The ROI on the web portal is in some ways an all-or-nothing situation. For a while the portal was passing to EMR only about 15 of the 20 data fields required to complete our demographic database. Intuitively one would think the portal was therefore “75% useful”. The problem is if I have to pay staff to open the patient’s file to manually enter the 5 remaining fields, I may as well have them manually enter all 20 fields. That makes the portal 0% useful. I can’t reassign staff to better things until the portal passes 100% of the data to the EMR. This also relates to the reliability issues described above. Until we reach near 100% reliability the return on investment is limited.
- As with every health IT product we have ever tried, it doesn’t work completely as advertised. Although the new patient workflow is going fairly well other features remain severely compromised. In our vendor’s defense this is partly because our parent EMR has had some upgrades which in turn requires our vendor to update the portal to adapt to the EMR changes. The point is that none of these products is “plug and play” and the industry has a long way to go before these products become easy to use and practical for everyone.
- There are unintended consequences of a web portal. Unbeknownst to us our portal was directing patients to the vendor’s personal health record product. The transition is apparently pretty seamless so patients often still thought they were still inside our portal when they encountered very personal questions (i.e., sexual history) that had no relevance to their ear / nose / throat appointment.
As an “early adopter” practice we are pleased overall with the portal but I’m not sure how a more typical practice would feel.