Improving your behavioral health practice’s patient experience is one of the best ways to effectively serve your patients’ needs. Patients will stay engaged in treatment and you can earn more revenue. Implementing a user-friendly, secure, and robust patient portal, is key to this goal. It’s even better if patients can access it from their mobile devices. A good patient portal centralizes patient care while improving engagement. Additional benefits of patient portals include streamlining the delivery of care, and making it easy for patients to handle paperwork, bills, and join telehealth sessions.
In this article we’ll discuss the benefits of patient portals, and how and why to implement them.
The Changing Landscape of Patient Care
Patient care is evolving, particularly in behavioral health. Younger adults attach less of a stigma toward depression and other behavioral health concerns. This is a good thing because it makes them more open to seeking care. But, they are more likely to avoid phone calls. Instead, they prefer emails or texts, when possible.
At the same time middle-aged adults are becoming more comfortable with interactive websites and smartphone apps. Behavioral health practices must now adapt to these changes to meet the expectations of a broad range of patients.
The Role of Patient Portals
A patient portal is a website or app through which patients can log in and complete various tasks. A top-tier patient portal should offer all or most of these functions:
- View bills
- Pay bills, including use of debit and credit cards
- Fill out paperwork such as onboarding, patient history, assessments, etc.
- Manage appointments
- Access test results
- Access medical records
- Integrated telehealth
- Secure messaging with staff and practitioners
- Secure and HIPAA-compliant portal
- Easy-to-use on various devices
- Native Android and iOS mobile app
- Integration with electronic health record (EHR) and billing software
- Integrated email, phone call, and text message communication (e.g. appointment reminders)
- Compatible with accessibility features (screen readers, etc.)
These functions all enhance patient engagement and empower patients to interact with your behavioral health practice. A recent scholarly review found that “patient portals carry great potential to improve patient care,” so long as you keep your patients in mind (Zhang et al., 2022).
Benefits of Patient Portals for Providers
The functions of a powerful patient portal can entice new patients to select your practice and help retain existing patients. It can also reduce clerical errors, no-show appointments, and minimize the need for manual paperwork and phone calls.
A good patient portal seamlessly integrates with your practice’s patient charts. And the resulting benefits of patient portals extend to billing, scheduling, the efficiency of your workflows.
You’ll also shore up HIPAA compliance by preventing any protected health information exchanges over unsecured channels.
Benefits for Patients
Once patients learn how to access and use the patient portal, they can easily get to their personal health information, message staff securely, and manage their appointments.
Recent research has considered the patient portal to be, “a compassion-oriented technology, as it may positively influence safety, disease management, and patient engagement” (Shin et al., 2023). Thus, the patient portal is a key tool for effective patient care.
Implementation and Integration
A robust patient portal may require implementing a new suite of software, which can be a time-intensive transition, but also offers many new opportunities. The steps involved include evaluating the practice’s needs, investigating patient portal and EHR solutions, and determining the best fit. A patient portal integrated within the same software suite as an EHR may be more functional and seamless than one “bolted on” to other software, especially if it is specifically designed for behavioral health. Other important concerns include importing past records and ensuring connections with billing clearinghouses. Expect to spend a considerable amount of time training and educating staff and patients on the new interface. If the patient portal is effective, this will be time well spent.
Ensuring Data Security and Privacy
The patient portal must keep patients’ data secure and respect their privacy. Make sure you are selecting a HIPAA-compliant software solution, and don’t forget to ask your vendor about compliance with local laws on data security. Be prepared to personally walk each patient through logging into the patient portal on their smartphone or other device. Here, there is an opportunity to emphasize data security with respect to their password, as well as their connected email credentials.
Text messages and emails are not HIPAA compliant, so make sure to restrict alerts to appointment reminders, and confirmations, login assistance, and patient portal notifications.
Overcoming Resistance to Change
Many patients simply will not be comfortable accessing a patient portal. But, it is possible that with training, some patients will develop a good comfort level. Word of mouth from friends and family can also help them get started.
Web portals are becoming more widespread and functional—even the Social Security Administration has a portal for applying for benefits, viewing work history and credits, and requesting a replacement card. Therefore, resistance to patient portals will probably continue declining over time.
At all times, your practice’s front desk staff play an important role in explaining the portal, as well as walking patients through using it. Patients who refuse or are unable to use the patient portal can still be assisted in the traditional manner, with staff manually handling paperwork, scanning, and data entry. If the portal has integrated EHR and related functions, it may still be useful for items such as automated appointment reminders.
Measuring and Improving Patient Outcomes
Make sure to survey your patients on their satisfaction with the patient portal, as well as any problems they encounter. A good patient portal integrates with patient charts and other EHR components, enabling your practice to deliver and manage care more effectively.
It should also provide an easy way for patients to fill out outcome measures directly through the portal. The most helpful tools will automate sending, scoring, and adding measures to charts and documentation, as well as plugging the data into your reporting.
Future Trends and Innovations
Patient portal technology is a hot topic; expect that features and ease-of-use will only improve in the future. Native telehealth integration remains a rarity in patient portals, but has become more common since the COVID-19 pandemic, and this trend is likely to continue. AI-powered chatbots and other AI-driven features (e.g., ChatGPT) are becoming more common in other fields, which will soon expand to behavioral health.
It is vital for professionals to stay updated on advancements in patient portals, as this is becoming a key differentiating factor for successful practices.
As you can see, the patient portal can help centralize patient care, acting as a hub for staff, practitioners, and patients. For some practices, the right patient portal may be transformative toward offering “compassion-oriented” care. At a minimum, the portal is a valuable tool for running an efficient practice and providing the optimal patient experience. Behavioral health professionals have a strong incentive to take the time to learn more about patient portals and consider the possibilities for their practice.