Health Care Informatics: What is a Patient Portal?

An emerging tool in health care IT, a patient portal is an interactive Web site that allows consumers to view their personal health data and communicate with health care providers. Hospitals and physician practices are creating these portals as part of a trend toward patients becoming active participants in their own care, rather than passive recipients of care. The goal is for patient portals to enhance collaboration between patient and provider, encourage self-management of chronic illness, and improve clinical outcomes.

While the banking industry has been quick to embrace use of the Internet to grant individual users access to their personal information, the health care industry has lagged behind in this area – possibly because of HIPAA concerns and lack of financial incentives to adopt the practice. Currently, however, patient portals are seen as a key way for health care organizations to meet the meaningful use goal of providing health information to patients and engaging them in their own care.

Typically, patient portals are set up to provide 24/7 access to data. Some portal applications exist as stand-alone Web sites that sell their services to health care organizations. More common, however, is the portal that is integrated with a provider’s existing Web site, often as a module of the electronic medical record (EMR). In this case, data stored in the central repository is retrieved by the portal application and formatted in a way that is easy for consumers to view and understand – just like financial data is presented online to banking customers. Security and HIPAA compliance is achieved through SSL and access control patterns, and patients typically verify a unique security image and sign in with a user name and password.

Specific functions of the patient portal vary greatly among providers but might include any of the following, giving patients the ability to:

  • Complete patient information forms online
  • View future appointment times and set-up requests for appointment reminders
  • View lab data, radiology results, or discharge instructions
  • Request prescription refills
  • Review historical data like immunization records, medication lists, drug allergies, etc.
  • Pay bills and update insurance information
  • Communicate with providers by asking questions or leaving comments
  • Access a variety of health self-management tools and personalized patient education materials
  • Report health data recorded in the home from devices like glucometers and blood pressure cuffs

The challenge for informaticists is integrating data from multiple systems (EMR, billing, appointments, etc.) into one cohesive view – providers may need to implement an enterprise master patient index to match and link all patient records. The portal must provide easy, quick registration and navigation – even for older and less tech-savvy patients – while maintaining a patient’s privacy. And health information must be presented in a format that patients can readily interpret, rather than as endless strings of data or medical jargon from the EMR – often this involves encryption, XML parsing and conversion with XSLT style sheets.

Messaging security is also a key concern for informaticists:  since standard e-mail and text messages travel outside the provider’s Intranet, they do not meet HIPAA requirements. According to the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), “the solution preferred by privacy and security experts is to use e-mail or similar communication methods to only notify patients that new content is available on a portal. This process keeps the information secure, as the patient must complete the portal login and authentication process to gain secure access.”

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