Patient Portals Unlock New Service Levels for Radiology

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This article is the third in a four-part series. To read part one, click here; to read part two, click here. Anthony BrownAs radiology practices deepen their investments in IT, a key stakeholder to consider is the patient, according to Anthony Brown, director of IT for Medical Management Professionals (MMP). “Nationwide, there is a movement to get people engaged in their health care,” he notes. “Outcomes significantly improve when the patient is engaged in his or her whole care continuum. Taking that a step further, however, the question becomes how best to engage the patient efficiently.” As Brown’s comment highlights, already-beleaguered radiology practices are not likely to have an easy or efficient means of connecting better with patients. This is why, increasingly, practices are using Web-based patient portals. “In today’s health-care environment, which is increasingly consumer driven, patients are already online looking for information,” he says. “A portal can help facilitate communication between patients and radiology practices in a way that is convenient for both.” Online Health Information At its most basic level, Brown says, a portal of this nature can be simply a patient-facing section of a practice’s website. “Over the past couple of years, with the increase in unemployment and the changes in the economy, US demographics have shifted to include a much larger self-pay population,” he says. “People are also much more fluent in using technology today, and they are getting online to compare prices for care. The better you can reach these patients, the more likely they are to choose your center.” The degree to which patients are using the Web is likely to surprise some health-care providers, Brown says. According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project,1 61% of adults in the United States look online for health information, and doing so is the third most common use of the Web. Of all adults surveyed, 42% said that they (or someone they knew) had been positively affected by looking for health information online. Even today’s Medicare patients are likely to use the Internet when looking for health information, Brown observes, underscoring how universal the trend has become. “There was a time when you could barely get a Medicare patient to use a touch-tone phone,” he says. “Today, the Medicare population includes those who grew up in the 1950s and even 1960s, and technology is not as scary to them as it was to the population 10 years ago.” Brown points out that many imaging procedures are likely to be new to patients, making information about how to prepare and what to expect particularly meaningful and helpful. “Caregivers and providers get very focused on the techniques and technical aspects of procedures that they can forget the anxiety level experienced by someone who has never had something like an MRI done before,” he notes. “If you can deliver information that reduces some of that anxiety, you will have patients who are much happier about coming in and getting their procedures done.” Access to Results and Billing A more sophisticated approach to patient portals entails taking advantage of secure software to provide patients with online access to their study results and billing information. “This is the second step,” Brown says. “This enables the patient to ask questions and connect with the practice in a convenient way—with secure access.” Brown notes that often, patients’ questions for their imaging providers are simple and can be satisfied using information that the practice already has on hand. “It may be very basic—simply confirming that the results have been sent to the referring physician so the patient can follow up,” Brown says. The question seen most often, he adds, is whether the report has been sent to the referrer. Patient portals should also provide billing information to help consumers through the often-tricky process of working with their insurance companies or establishing payment plans. “You can take a cue from the insurance plans and make that information available online,” Brown says. “In doing so, you shift inquiries that you would have fielded on the phone to the patient portal, which makes the process more convenient for patients (while freeing staff time).” Looking Ahead In the future, Brown anticipates, some practices will even offer real-time communication with practice staff through online chat windows. “That role could be filled by someone who works at the front desk and would normally field questions on the phone,” he says, “or it could even be a technologist who does not have an active task right at that moment, filling in to answer a patient’s questions.” Whatever approach a radiology practice takes to providing information for patients through the Web, Brown stresses that this capability will be critical to delivering optimal service as patients exercise more control over their care. “Consumerism is changing the face of health-care delivery,” he says. “This change means your practice has to be much more service oriented than health care previously needed to be.” Cat Vasko is editor of and associate editor of Radiology Business Journal.