Med Tech Report

Are patient portals living up to the hype? Ask your mother-in-law!


While preparing to write this technology column, I received a great deal of insight from the unlikeliest of sources: my mother-in-law.

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik of Abington (Pa.) Jefferson Health

Dr. Chris Notte and Dr. Neil Skolnik

Now don’t get me wrong – she’s a truly lovely, intelligent, and capable woman. I have sought her advice often on many things and have always been impressed by her wisdom and pragmatism, but I’ve just never thought of asking her for her opinion on medicine or technology, as I considered her knowledge of both subjects to be limited.

This occasion changed my opinion. In fact, I believe that, as health care IT becomes more complex, people like my mother-in-law may be exactly who we should be looking to for answers.

A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law and I were discussing her recent trip to the doctor. When she mentioned some lab tests, I suggested that we log in to her patient portal to view the results. This elicited several questions and a declaration of frustration.

“Which portal?” she asked. “I have so many and can’t keep all of the websites and passwords straight! Why can’t all of my doctors use the same portal, and why do they all have different password requirements?”

As she spoke these words, I was immediately struck with an unfortunate reality of EHRs: We have done a brilliant job creating state-of-the-art digital castles and have filled them with the data needed to revolutionize care and improve population health – but we haven’t given our patients the keys to get inside.

We must ask ourselves if, in trying to construct fortresses of information around our patients, we have lost sight of the individuals in the center. I believe that we can answer this question and improve the benefits of patient portals, but we all must agree to a few simple steps to streamline the experience for everyone.

Make it easy

A study recently published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine surveyed several hospitals on their usage of patient portals. After determining whether or not the institutions had such portals, the authors then investigated to find out what, if any, guidance was provided to patients about how to use them.

Their findings are frustrating, though not surprising. While 89% of hospitals had some form of patient portal, only 65% of those “had links that were easily found, defined as links accessible within two clicks from the home page.”

Furthermore, even in cases where portals were easily found, good instructions on how to use them were missing. Those instructions that did exist centered on rules and restrictions and laying out “terms and conditions” and informing patients on “what not to do,” rather than explaining how to make the most of the experience.

According to the authors, “this focus on curtailing behavior, and the hurdles placed on finding and understanding guidance, suggest that some hospitals may be prioritizing reducing liability over improving the patient experience with portals.”

If we want our patients to use them, portals must be easy to access and intuitive to use. They also must provide value.


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