Opening up the Pandora’s Box of Patient Portals

I received an interesting email in my inbox last week from a hospital informatics friend. He recently overheard several primary care physicians talking about the patient portal soon to be coming their way, and they were not enthusiastic about the technology.

“They were complaining about an upcoming patient portal,” he wrote, “where all lab results are visible to the patient. They worry that the flood of calls wanting more info on each lab result, especially the insignificant, will unnecessarily tax primary care. This will lead to the need for countless hours of education, and reassurance that tests not within the textbook definition of ‘normal’ aren’t always cause for concern.”

Being a patient myself, I can certainly understand where they’re coming from. I am the type who wouldn’t hesitate to call about a line item I didn’t understand or that seemed abnormal on my lab results, assuming Google (much to every doctor’s chagrin) couldn’t give me a clearer picture.

This fear of patient portals leading to unnecessary communication with the patient is not just confined to the doctors above. I heard conversation around this very topic at the iHT2 conference I wrote about last week. Some providers, like Kaiser Permanente and Geisinger, have been successfully using patient portals for years. Others, like West Georgia Health, are just beginning to plan for implementation.

I asked Thomas Graf, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Population Health, at Geisinger, what advice he has to give to facilities that are just beginning their patient portal journey. He did not hesitate in answering: “Don’t be afraid. Chaos will not ensue.” He went on to say that Geisinger physicians did not find themselves inundated with patient requests for clarifications and explanations of insignificant results. Their workflows were in fact made more efficient.

Getting back to the note from my friend, he went on to ask, “Is there such a thing as too much information, or is HIT finally democratizing medicine enough that patients will be motivated to understand more about their own healthcare? Do the docs have a point, or have they just historically been lazy about communicating with patients, and now have to come to grips that patients can see the man behind the curtain?”

I don’t think it’s a question of laziness. I think it’s a question of access and time. Ten years ago, some of us didn’t have a small computer in our pockets, readily available to offer medical information whenever we needed it. So, we turned to the phone and called our doctor. Today, as I mentioned above, patients are much more likely to research symptoms and conditions online before initiating conversation with their PCP. Some doctors might groan about Google, but wouldn’t they rather have a motivated patient – someone who wants to learn about their condition – rather than an apathetic one?

Isn’t patient engagement the name of the game these days? Hopefully, doctors will be pleasantly surprised at the benefits their portal brings to patient care. They might also be surprised at the new level of engagement their patients now have access to.