Do patient portals work for allergy practices?

| August 20, 2018

Do patient portals work for allergy practices?

It’s time for a patient portal check-in! In a recent survey of medical practice executives by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA), 90% of respondents said their organization offers a patient portal. And of the 90% that offer a patient portal, 43% accept patient-generated health data for clinical review. Is your allergy practice among them?

Patient portals can be hugely beneficial to both patients and allergy practices – if they work well, and if practices encourage patients to use them. That’s a big if, because many patient portals don’t interface well with electronic health records (EHRs) or are difficult for patients to use. And many practices don’t make portal use a priority, which discourages patients from using it.

So what are the major benefits, and why should you consider a patient portal for your practice?

1. Streamlined patient registration and administrative tasks

Patients can complete registration forms electronically before checking in, which saves time for both staff and patients on appointment day.

2. Better patient satisfaction

Many patients, especially younger ones, prefer to communicate with their allergy practice electronically. They’d rather use a portal to view test results, request prescription refills, make appointments, pay bills and ask questions than call the office and wait on hold. Offering a portal option to these patients is a huge patient satisfier.

3. Improved allergy practice efficiency

An effective patient portal will reduce the number of patient calls to your office, since patients can schedule appointments, pay bills, request refills, view test results and communicate with the office via the portal. And allergists and staff can often respond more quickly and completely to electronic portal requests.

Are you curious whether allergy practices use patient portals, and if so, whether they’re successful? Or why some practices decide not to implement a portal? Twelve members of the College’s Practice Management Committee recently had a lively discussion on this topic. Of the 12, six have patient portals and six do not. Here are some takeaways from the group:

If you do get a portal, make sure it’s integrated with your EHR.

Four of the six members using a portal say it’s integrated with their EHR, and as a result, they can import new patient demographic information and even patient medical history, prescription information and more. Patients using their portals can schedule appointments, ask billing questions, pay bills, upload photos of rashes, communicate with allergists and view their lab and test results, as well as clinical visit summaries.

"I think if we made a concerted effort, our patients would use [the portal] more."
–Kelly Davis, BS, CMPE

John Tole, DO, FACAAI, has had success with his portal. “Patients can sign all the registration and HIPAA forms, and enter medications, allergies, medical history, surgical history and family history in advance. A nurse reviews the information and then moves it to the patient’s chart with the click of a button. Patients do sometimes make errors, such as including an incorrect history of insect allergy. Once we confirm an error, we update the chart.”

Alnoor Malick, MD, FACAAI, has had a different portal experience. “We also have a portal, but its utility has been disappointing,” he notes. “It does not integrate well with our EHR, and the necessary interfaces are too costly to justify.”

Practices with a portal need to market it to patients.

Practices that aren’t enthusiastic about their portal won’t get patients to use it – and they won’t see the associated efficiency and patient satisfaction benefits. “We’re slowly pushing our patient portal more now that the data flows seamlessly into the patient’s chart,” said Dr. Tole. “In fact, we’re designing a new layout at our clinic so patients can sit at a kiosk and complete the portal forms and history before seeing an allergist.”

Kelly Davis, BS, CMPE, notes, “Our patients have been slow to adopt the patient portal. We try and get all new patients to complete their demographic information in the portal before their appointment. We’ve had a few utilize the portal for prescription refill requests and an occasional payment. They mainly use it to upload photos of their rashes to their chart. I think if we made a concerted effort, our patients would use it more.”

Practices without a portal are concerned about costs.

Three of the six practices without a patient portal cited concerns about the cost of the portal and its integration with their EHR. “Our EHR offers the capability of a patient portal, but we choose not to use it at this time,” said Razi Rafeeq, MD, FACAAI “We think utilization of a portal would be low among our patient population and would not justify the increased cost.”

Melinda Rathkopf, MD, FACAAI, agrees. “We do not have a patient portal despite being on an EHR since 2010. The cost of the interface needed to connect the portal to our EHR was over $10,000, and that does not include the price of the portal itself.  As a patient, however, I use a portal for my primary care physician, my gynecologist and my daughter’s pediatrician. Online form completion and appointment scheduling are helpful, as is the ability to send questions to providers. We will continue to look into adding one, but for smaller practices, it can be a financial burden.”.

Practices without portals may re-evaluate that decision within the next two years.

“We don’t have a patient portal, but we do have the capability within our EHR. We’ve only had our EHR for one year and are still adapting to it,” explains James Tracy, DO, FACAAI. In addition, Dr. Rafeeq said his practice will reassess their portal decision in one to two years. And although Kevin McGrath, MD, FACAAI, doesn’t use a patient portal, his patients can download forms from his website or fill them out online, and he is looking for ways to communicate with patients electronically.

Dr. Tole sums up a major frustration with patient portals. “Unfortunately, EHRs were pushed out so quickly that they don’t interface with each other, and the data is not shared electronically. The same goes for patient portals. Patients don’t want a separate portal for every doctor they see.”

If you decide to implement a patient portal, MGMA’s article “Are portals a means to patient activation?” outlines the five functions every portal should have. One way or another, electronic communication with patients will likely be part of the future for allergists and immunologists. Give some thought as to how you’d like your practice to participate.