Nursing Informatics: Empowering Consumers Through the Patient Portal

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 to enhance collaboration between patient and provider, encourage self-management of chronic illness, and improve clinical outcomes.

The Alliance for Nursing Informatics (ANI) has pledged to support consumer e-health initiatives, including patient portals. It says, “As nurses are the most-trusted health professionals and have a long history of patient advocacy, we expect to have a significant impact on patient participation in Health IT and increase the use of Personal Health Records and Patient Portals from the 10% seen today to over 25% in the next 2 years.” (Read the full pledge online.)

An emerging tool

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 protocols are programmed in for HIPAA compliance and patients typically 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

Nursing informatics can play a role

Nurses who are prepared in informatics can play a vital role in strengthening patient care and patient engagement through tools like the patient portal. The challenge for the nursing informaticists who influence the design of these portals is integrating data from multiple systems (EMR, billing, appointments, etc.) into one cohesive view – and presenting the information in a way that patients can easily interpret and interact with. The portal must provide an easy, quick registration process and intuitive navigation, even for older and less tech-savvy patients. It goes without saying that it must protect patient privacy by keeping data secure.

Messaging security is also a key concern for nursing 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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