Patient Portals Not Likely to Increase Physician Headaches


NEW ORLEANS — Rather than unlocking a Pandora's box of nattering e-mails, an electronic patient portal that allows messaging and even access to test results can improve patient satisfaction and decrease patient visits, says one expert.

“Many physicians think that this type of access is frightening,” Dr. Gretchen P. Purcell said at the annual clinical congress of the American College of Surgeons. “They think they'll be barraged with messages, that patients will misinterpret their test results, and that physicians could even be held legally liable if they don't respond in time to an urgent message.”

But health care providers, who are about 10 years behind the curve in the digital world, need to face up to the facts of the 21st century, said Dr. Purcell of the surgery department at the Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn. “Patients are demanding the same kind of online access to their medical information as they have for all other aspects of their lives. Those health care institutions that do not have a patient portal now probably will within the next 5 years.”

Patient portals can be designed to suit the needs of different practices and to fulfill various functions. At a minimum, they allow patients to pay bills, schedule or change appointments, and request prescription refills. Other portals are more robust and give patients the ability to review medical records, view test results, and send messages to their health care providers, said Dr. Purcell, who is also with the biomedical informatics department at Vanderbilt Medical Center.

Messaging and the ability to access test results are controversial topics, she said. “Messaging is probably the function physicians fear the most. Many think it's the equivalent of getting and sending personal e-mail, and this brings up all kinds of worries about security and privacy.”

E-mail and messaging, however, are not the same things. Messages don't go to a personal e-mail account; instead, they go to a dedicated in-box. “This message box is routinely checked by an administrative assistant or nurse—someone who can often answer many of the questions, and who would involve the physician only when necessary—similar to phone call triage.”

There also are concerns that these electronic exchanges aren't part of a patient's documented record. “Some portals can make messaging part of the medical record, and some physicians have found ways to charge for this 'online consultation,'” Dr. Purcell said.

It's important to set clear expectations about response time and emergency issues. Most messaging systems tell patients that they may have to wait 2–3 business days for a personal reply and advise them to call 911 for a medical emergency.

It's not unreasonable to assume that electronic communication could allow patients to bombard offices with questions and requests. Although data are still limited, the studies that are out there suggest just the opposite, Dr. Purcell said.

Two studies published in 2005 indicate that messaging increases patient satisfaction without any corresponding increase in workload. The first study randomized 200 patients to secure messaging or usual care. Only 46% of the patients who were given access sent any messages at all; the average was just 1.5 messages per patient per year. And although messaging didn't reduce the number of telephone calls the office received, the number of office visits in the intervention group did go down (Int. J. Med. Inform. 2005;74:705–10).

The second study randomized 606 patients to a patient communication portal or to a Web site with general health information. Only 31% of the patients given access used the portal. The message box received only one message per day per 250 patients. Again, there was no difference in the number of office telephone calls between the groups, but the patients in the portal group reported better satisfaction with communication and overall care, even if they never used the portal (J. Med. Internet Res. 2005;7:e48).

The same study indicated that secure messaging probably would not overwhelm anyone during working hours, Dr. Purcell said. “Patients tended to use the portal during nonclinic hours—the most convenient time for them—with about 73% of messaging occurring from 5 p.m. until midnight.” Patients may even be willing to pay for the added convenience of messaging, the authors concluded. Of 341 patients surveyed, 162 (48%) were willing to pay for online correspondence with their physician, with $2 cited as the median payment they thought fair.

MyHealthAtVanderbilt (

Next Article: