Tech Now + Beyond

This is the future of healthcare, but are we ready for it?

We’re in an age where we’re becoming increasingly technology dependent; it’s only logical to use technological advances to practice self-health management too. I’m personally fascinated by the idea that I can access my entire medical history in one place through an ID and a password on a secure website. Documentation of any kind when searchable and easily accessible has tremendous personal and societal utility.

Information is the key to awareness and eventual education. By having access to our own health information, we as patients can demand better services, make well-informed decisions, and become better patients to our doctors.

Patients who do not forget to take their meds on time and patients who are compliant and engaged in their own health are only a dream for today’s burned out providers. But this can change; technology can be a game changer. It can put patients in the center of the health ecosystem. Technology is here to make our health systems smarter and more efficient, and to help us navigate the complex health systems better. Patient portals are one such tool, and they’re designed to help patients view, download and share their health data.

 What is a patient portal anyway?

It is a secure website or an app that has tons of features. Some basic features a patient portal can have are:

allowing patients to view their own health-related information such as medical history, medications, allergies and even lab results. Some advanced patient portals also allow patients to send emails to doctors, request prescription refills, schedule non-urgent appointments, check insurance status, update contact information, make payments, and view health condition-specific educational materials.

Several hospitals provide patient portals as smartphone apps too.

Why are patient portals needed?

Because they’re an online platform through which patients can have access to their medical records, have more control of health, and this might translate to better quality of care. With the portal, patients will no longer have to visit the doctor’s office to refill prescriptions, communicate about a potential health problem or schedule appointments.

They’re online, they’re convenient, and they’re efficient. Those should be reasons enough.

But to add on to those solid reasons, patients get a secure website with all the necessary health information and this generally means fewer trips to the doctor’s office, fewer phone calls to check on the status of lab reports and better awareness of your overall health.

From a provider’s perspective, having a patient portal will make the doctor’s office eligible for reimbursement as government incentivizes the using of health information technology to track patient’s well-being and communicate online. It is also less expensive for the government and private insurance companies when patients are in charge of their own health as this might reduce the number of emergency department visits and hospital admissions. Exchange of information between different specialists and providers is also convenient.

How secure is my health information? 

Health care, in general, is already a strictly regulated industry. Any website that holds patient information is legally required to be HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) compliant. This means technology providers are abiding by the United States legislation that provides data privacy and security provisions for safeguarding medical information.

So, what are the drawbacks?

Despite the cost reductions, and improved patient engagement, wide-scale adoption of portals has been difficult.

This translates to reduced costs.

Part of this could be due to the fact that success of any technology in the health care system is bound by interests of multiple stakeholders. And part of it could be because, high users of health care services such as elderly patients and patients with multiple chronic conditions, are comparatively slow adopters of new technology.

A patient portal’s usability is limited for an otherwise healthy individual like me, unless I can use it as a storage space, for all my health data that is tracked on a daily basis on multiple fitness devices. But, such advanced functionality isn’t available yet. I could still track my cholesterol, blood pressure and hemoglobin levels that were entered by my doctor, from my patient portal. But, I had to manually enter data, such as my sleep schedule and physical fitness goals, that was being collected from my fitness devices because the portal would not automatically connect with my fitness device. Some routine technology glitches such as the inability to access through legacy browsers, multiple logins for multiple providers, also make the portal less user-friendly.

Cool – so what’s the verdict?

Overall, in my experience, patient portals are a convenient and a viable tool to engage with your provider and health care information online; they are robust from a privacy and confidentiality standpoint. If you’re looking for a safe and secure online method of storing and engaging with your health information, I recommend talking to your primary care provider about the availability of such a service at your local hospital.

By Samreen Fathima

Samreen is a dentist and a public health practitioner with a BDS from Government Dental College and Hospital and MPH from University of Memphis School of Public Health specializing in epidemiology. She is interested in health and the larger socio-political issues affecting women, minorities and children.