The establishment of patient portals has blurred the lines of what is considered to be appropriate doctor-patient communication outside of the medical office. Although there are understandable concerns about these portals, their many benefits are worth the effort for both patients and clinicians.
For example, these portals provide patients with superior control over image data. Patients can choose to share medical images with a hospital or other provider organization, which can in turn give the patients the opportunity to create an account to store medical images in a personal health record (PHR). They can then access their accounts to view and share images anytime.
In addition, hospitals can optimize second-opinion services and play a key role in reducing unnecessary testing by embedding medical image sharing functionality directly into the program. With this capability, hospitals can capture patient information, a synopsis of symptoms, medical history, and medical images in a single repository. Second-opinion programs that have deployed a simple self-service framework for collecting imaging data have experienced significant increases in second-opinion activities.
What's more, physician offices can streamline operations by offering access to images via portals, expediting the check-in process by requesting access to images, and encouraging patients to upload images prior to appointments. In addition to opening new lines of communication with patients, doctors can expand communication with colleagues by using portals with sharing functionality to coordinate care with out-of-network providers and simplify collaboration.
A system that enables images to be embedded in electronic medical records (EMRs) can significantly streamline many office processes. It can also speed up the process of receiving images from outside providers. Currently, some providers wait for patients' diagnostic images to arrive via the mail, which is an archaic practice that can be eliminated by using a portal.
But what about patient concerns? Medical service providers may face some challenges in getting patients to feel comfortable about sharing images. Facilities are typically highly enthusiastic about implementing a cloud-based system to receive images from patients.
A recent survey by my cloud-based software company DICOM Grid showed that 70% of patients find portals to be a convenient way to communicate with their doctors. But despite these encouraging findings, patient engagement with portals may be lower than expected.
Hospitals, physician offices, and other medical services providers can improve engagement by addressing head-on issues that cause patient anxiety. Below are five tips for improving engagement.
No. 1: Address security concerns
It is understandable for patients to have security concerns about medical image sharing via the cloud. They may have worries about hacking or wonder about HIPAA compliance. The best way to allay these fears is to work with the cloud image sharing vendor to distribute information about the system's security features. Another proven strategy is to compare the security technology in electronic medical image management systems with that used in online banking. Referencing this tool that many patients use daily can alleviate their concerns.
No. 2: Assure patients that they'll still get provider face time
Some patients may suspect that the portal is being deployed to move communication entirely to an electronic platform and reduce the time they spend with their doctor. It's a good idea to let them know the real purpose of the portal: to expedite test result delivery and eliminate unnecessary visits that waste the patient's time. When communicating with patients via the portal, always include a phone number and encourage them to call if they have any questions.
No. 3: Always respond to messages promptly
To reassure patients that the use of a portal will promote better communication rather than impede it, it's important to respond quickly to incoming messages. In patient communications about the portal, it's advisable to set a reasonable time frame for responses (within 24 or 48 hours, etc.) and then stick to it. The first experience that patients have with the portal will carry more weight than any descriptions they read before using it.
No. 4: Make sure the platform is intuitive
Ease of use is a critical factor in portal success. Patients won't spend much time trying to figure out how a system works or waiting for images to upload. Before selecting a cloud image sharing vendor, the medical organization's purchaser should look at the system from the patient's perspective and examine how the portal and image sharing features work. He or she should consider different age groups and technical proficiency. It's also a good idea to request a free trial and test a system that is under consideration with patients to see how they respond.
No. 5: Track metrics to support continuous improvement
As with any new system, continuous improvement should be an ongoing objective. It's a good idea to track key metrics to analyze how patients and clinicians use portals. Having medical staff members ask patients about their portal experience is also helpful. The organization can use this information to make the portal work better for everyone.
EMRs and portals with image uploading and sharing capabilities are important components of a broader trend -- digital communication in medicine -- that is changing the way clinicians coordinate care and communicate with patients. Organizations that recognize the value of these new capabilities and manage patient expectations can improve their operations while providing faster access to data. Ultimately, opening new lines of communication can improve patient outcomes.
Morris Panner is CEO of DICOM Grid, a cloud-based image management software developer.