Is a patient portal coming between you and your doctor? It seems as though patients are being pushed to use these websites for everything from making appointments to viewing test results and medical records to asking health questions. Patient portals save medical practices and hospitals money by taking human employees out of the equation. But are patient portals a good thing—and a safe thing—for you, the patient?
Not always. They can be hard to use, confusing and even scary. And according to a report from the National Poll on Healthy Aging, only half the people between the ages of 50 and 80 are taking advantage of them.
But they can be extremely useful, saving you time and money and helping you better manage your health care if you know how to get around these common frustrations…
Setup snafus. You’ve accepted the invitation from your provider’s office to set up your patient portal account, but the system tells you that the information you entered doesn’t match your records.
Solution: Compare the information you filled in with a current form or receipt from the provider’s office. If you recently moved, check to see whether the office is using your former address or phone number. If any information is incorrect, call to have them update your records. (See “Errors in Your Records” below for how to request the corrections.) Once the corrections have been made, you should be able to sign up for the portal using the updated information. If none of this helps, look on the invitation e-mail for contact information for web help, typically the phone number or e-mail of an IT person who can troubleshoot the problem.
Log-in logjam. If your various health providers use different portals, multiple sites, usernames and passwords, it will just add to the slew of other log-ins you need to remember.
Solution: It might finally be time to stop relying on a paper list or (even more risky in terms of online safety) an electronic document and instead try a password manager to securely store your information. These are helpful solutions for managing multiple passwords and safer than those other methods.
Errors in your records. You’re in, but now you see that some of your information was entered into the portal incorrectly. It could be an allergy you don’t have or a drug you’ve never taken—misinformation you don’t want the doctors treating you to think is true.
Solution: Call your doctor’s office to ask about the process for getting mistakes fixed. You may need to fill out a form and send it in through the portal or by e-mail, fax or snail mail. Include a copy of the record page that contains the error so that the administrator can find the mistake easily.
If there’s no set process to follow, write a formal letter with all the following information suggested by HealthIT.gov and send it in:
- Your full name, address and telephone number
- Your health-care provider’s full name and address
- The date of your last appointment
- An explanation of the error—keep it short, clear and specific
- A copy of the page in the records containing the error
Be sure to sign the request and keep a copy.
Test result confusion. Portals can remove the “wall” between you and your provider and a testing facility. That sounds helpful at first, but it could also mean that you have the ability to see test results in real time and in the same medical jargon your doctor does…but without knowing whether what you’re reading is a “normal” result or the frightening findings you were hoping against.
Solution: Before you start Googling portions of your test results in an attempt to decipher them, call your doctor’s office and ask to review the findings with the doctor. If you’re asked to wait for a follow-up appointment that’s days away and you’re anxious about what you’re reading, ask whether the office has a physician assistant who can go through the results with you in the meantime.
A common situation: If your portal shows blood test results without giving the normal range for each one, before you have tests from that office in the future, ask your doctor for a printout detailing what the normal range is for each component and at what point you should be concerned if your numbers are outside the healthy range.
Multiple portals that don’t share. If, say, your primary care doctor uses one patient portal network and your endocrinologist uses another, you might need to take steps to communicate your information between your health-care providers.
Solution: In the old days, you would have had to directly contact one doctor’s office to ask someone there to send information to the other doctor’s office…or get the info printed and bring it over yourself. And you still might have to do that. But some patient portal networks offer the option of “Health Information Exchange,” which allows your records to be shared between health providers even if they are on different networks—availability varies from state-to-state. If your portals don’t make it clear whether they offer information exchange, call the doctors’ offices and ask. If not, you can print out your records from your patient portal and send them or take them to the other docter’s office. This will at least save you the time of waiting for one doctor to send them to another.
WHAT ELSE YOU NEED TO KNOW
Protecting your privacy. The host sites of patient portals use secure connections, and information is protected by encrypted, password-protected logins. Patient portals also keep records of when your information was accessed, by whom and what changes were made. No system is guaranteed to never be breached, of course. You can help keep your information secure by protecting your username and password and accessing your patient portal only from your personal computer—never from a public or employer computer.
Making the most of the portal. Patient portals are convenient for making nonemergency appointments—no more waiting on hold for the receptionist. They’re also useful for getting quick answers from your doctor to nonemergency questions and asking for prescription refills.
But that’s all just housekeeping. To use patient portals much more powerfully to benefit your health, also regularly review your progress on conditions you’re managing, such as high blood pressure, weight loss and cholesterol levels, because portals keep a continuous record of your visits and test results.
Do NOT use your patient portal for pressing or urgent medical situations. Portals are not monitored 24/7, and even when they are, it can take a long time for anyone to respond to a question or request. If you need urgent care or advice, the old-fashioned way is still best—pick up the phone.