Feature Content

Feature: Patient portals, moving from admin to engagement

By Dr Satya Raghuvanshi, Head of Clinical, Accurx.

Whether you have a consultation with your GP, need hospital treatment or care in the community, there are many interconnecting factors that shape your experience as a patient. How easily can you access care? How long have you waited to be seen? How well-informed have you been throughout your patient journey?

Naturally, the answers to these questions often decide how people evaluate their experiences as patients. At Accurx, we believe that a deeper principle underpins these questions, namely that patients want to feel involved with their care and the people delivering it. As obvious as this sounds, one only has to look at the modes of communication in use across the health system to see that these rarely enable this feeling of engagement.

Let’s take an example patient, Joan. After some blood tests in hospital, Joan receives a letter with the test results and is asked to call a number on the letter to follow up. She does, only to find that the number goes through to an answerphone. After trying several more times, she gets through to someone she hasn’t spoken to before and has to explain the whole story of her care from scratch before any triaging of her request can take place. Examples like this are common, and they don’t add up to a positive patient experience.

Patient portals are more than an administrative tool

In recent years, patient portals have increasingly been developed as a way of solving this problem. It’s a powerful idea: that patients and their caregivers have a shared digital place in which to interact, exchange information and coordinate the patient’s care. However, many portals today are used exclusively as a channel by which to push out information to patients. They give patients appointment and prescription details; they provide normal test results as well as care plans and guidance for outpatients.

This information is no doubt useful and often vital to the patient’s care. However, just like letters and phones, such portals do little to actively engage the patient on the subject of their care. Instead, they work in a one-sided manner, and as an administrative tool whose usage is led by healthcare professionals to mostly give information to patients. There are two main drawbacks to using portals in this way.

Firstly, it reduces patient care to a transaction, one in which the patient has no meaningful way of engaging with both their care and with those providing it. This can be disheartening and frustrating for patients and leave them feeling like the passive subject of other people’s conversations rather than their own.

Secondly, despite pushing out information to patients, using portals in this way doesn’t necessarily make things easier for patients. For example, if patients are unable to change their hospital or GP appointment, without having to call the service, outpatient department or GP practice. In many cases, this use case for portals provides no open, monitored channel by which to communicate with caregivers or services. Instead, it renders communication one-sided and fails to mobilise patients into active participants in their care. This can have a knock-on effect on usage of the portal because, fundamentally, if you want patients to use patient portals, they need to feel that they’re getting value from them – not just their caregivers.

For this to happen, portal developers must understand that the value of a patient portal isn’t just administrative – and therefore centred around the healthcare professional. Their value also comes from being engagement-based and from prioritising easy, two-way communication between the patient and their service. By doing this, services can genuinely empower their patients to manage their own care while creating capacity, improving efficiency and offering a better patient experience.

A single portal for all a patient’s healthcare needs

On top of this, many portals exist only for specific services or in specific care settings. However, we can’t expect patients to use multiple portals depending on which part of the healthcare system they’re interacting with. From a patient perspective, having one portal to interact with your GP, one for any hospital care and so forth simply reshapes the age-old problem of siloed communication channels.

Instead, one portal across the NHS should be adopted which patients can turn to for all their interactions within the system. That way, patients have one go-to gateway by which to interact with their caregivers and which takes a more holistic view of their care.

Putting engagement at the heart of patient portals

Instead of being used as a background tool, portals should also be forefronted for a variety of needs. For example, a portal can help in informing a patient’s family member about their care, removing the need for an appointment, or it can help services work out if the patient still needs to be on a particular waiting list. It can also be used to triage requests and provide care remotely, removing the need for an appointment.

We propose a different approach to patient portals that treats portals as a living, breathing thing. Accurx believes that portals should not simply document a record of care but be an interactive one-stop-shop with patient engagement at their heart.

That’s the logic which underwrites our own patient engagement portal at Accurx. Given our portal prioritises the wants, needs and experiences of patients, it is designed directly from user research across a diverse set of patients. This research is taking place in the lead up to a larger discovery project focused on in-depth patients needs and which should help us improve the portal in the future.

We are also developing new features soon that will make the patient portal more useful to patients, such as the ability for them to view their past conversation history with healthcare professionals. We’re also exploring how portals can help services tackle the elective backlog. This builds on our recent work with partner trusts to reduce waiting lists by more than 10 percent.

Our portal – like all of our communication software – prioritises simplicity and ease of use. It’s this principle of simplicity which has seen Accurx usage expand to 98 percent of GP practices and 68 percent of NHS trusts through recent years. By believing in software that is simple for patients and simple for healthcare teams, we seek to provide a more efficient, consistent and rewarding experience for people across healthcare.

In this regard, Accurx is looking to bring portals to the forefront as we shift toward a less transactional and more interactive approach to healthcare communication.