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Mobile a likely key to more patient portal use

Some hospitals have been successful by launching apps that give patients access to their medical records. Physician practices might find similar interest.

By — Posted May 20, 2013

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Physicians face a meaningful use requirement for their electronic health record systems that at least 5% of their patient population access their medical records through a patient portal. Many are concerned that simply offering access through the Internet isn’t going to be enough of a draw to meet that threshold. The potential answer: a mobile app.

Although not all households, especially those in poor areas, have a home computer, it’s a safe bet they have, or will soon have, a smartphone. An April 2013 report from Pew Internet & American Life Project showed that 87% of U.S. adults have a cellphone, 49% of which are smartphones. That percentage only will rise, as most cellphone carriers don’t offer alternatives to smartphones when customers sign new carrier contracts. Even pre-pay plans geared toward low-income customers include inexpensive smartphone options.

Patients now handle much of their banking, emailing and social networking on mobile devices. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that patients wanted the same convenient access to their test results, medication and problem lists. It turned out that UPMC’s patients weren’t the only ones. In 2011, UPMC’s EHR vendor launched iPhone and Android apps because of a growing demand from its hospital clients.

Use of the patient portal grew from about 700 new patients per week signing up to about 1,600, said G. Daniel Martich, MD, chief medical information officer at UPMC. They now have more than 14,000 mobile app users. As UPMC works toward stage 2 meaningful use, Dr. Martich said he doesn’t think it would have been able to meet the 5% threshold without a mobile app. The system now can leverage both patients who use home computers and those who live on their phones, Dr. Martich said.

Frances Dare, managing director of connected health services for the consulting firm Accenture, agrees that a mobile component to the patient portal might be crucial for some practices to meet the meaningful use threshold.

She said mobile devices allow patients to accomplish tasks conveniently. “The thing I think is even more potentially powerful is we can see a broader demographic group of patient consumers engaged, because the most ubiquitous communication device is smartphones,” she said. Traditionally, patient portals have been used more widely by those who are affluent, she added.

More tech support may be needed

Derek Kosiorek, a principal in the MGMA Health Care Consulting Group, isn’t convinced that a mobile app would lead to more patients using a portal, but he agrees that it will be a nice add-on to people already using it. If practices go the app route, he said, they should make very clear to their vendors that patients also will need tech support. The addition of a portal will increase the number of people who experience problems such as forgotten passwords and problems logging in. It should be clear who will handle those calls.

Dare said practices should have a good sense of what features will promote use of the app. She said there are tasks some patients are not willing to do from a mobile app. Having the ability to send a message and make a call without leaving the app would be attractive options, she said. That way, patients using the app to fill out a form could get questions answered right away if they don’t understand something.

When the app is launched, Dare said, a sign could go up in the waiting room, and patients could download it while they wait for an appointment. But if they do, the practice must be ready to play tech support. Staff must be trained to use the app so they can, in turn, help the patients.

Third-party vendors, rather than large EHR vendors, might be first to build a mobile portal link for the physician market. Scott Walker, sales manager of health care products and services at EHR seller Rehmann, said none of the three large EHR vendors he works with offers a mobile app or plans to do so.

“The challenge is, all of these vendors are doing their best to keep up on all of the criteria they have to report on like meaningful use and ICD-10. It’s hard to know if they are willing to put up that kind of resource” for patient portal apps, he said. “The patient portal is not something a lot of vendors spend a lot of time on.”

But because mobile apps would drive wider use of the portals, a growing number of third-party vendors entering the market could provide the services practices are looking for, he added.

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