Creating a successful patient portal for specialty practices may seem like a tough task given portal adoption challenges faced by providers. You might think that patients whose illnesses require the attention of specialists would be too sick or too consumed with their treatments to log in to an online portal as part of their care. But, in fact, oncology patients are adopting and meaningfully using online portals precisely because their treatment regimens demand close monitoring.

That's been our experience with My Care Plus, an oncology-specific online portal McKesson Specialty Health launched in 2012. About 1,500 providers are now communicating with more than 250,000 patients through the portal.

I'd like to share some of our tips to success in the hopes that other clinicians can learn from our experience to improve their portal usage rates.

Getting Physician and Staff Buy-In

Patients will use the portal if their practices believe in it, and sometimes staff members need to be convinced that the portal enhances their ability to do their job prior to promoting it to their patients. That starts with front-office staff; is it one more thing to do? Or, is it something that will improve their job performance?

Reducing phone calls is a key driver for front-office staff. Patients with medical conditions, like cancer, tend to have more appointments, more tests and more questions. An online portal that reminds patients of their next appointment, informs them of their latest test results and provides answers to frequently asked questions can eliminate many patient phone calls. The value that a portal can offer front-office staff is fewer calls and better patient experiences.

Medical specialists are busy with high-intensity care and coordination–both of which can take a lot of time to manage for a practice population. An online portal is a way to offer more support to patients. They can access their health information including lab results or treatment details and send updates or questions via a secure messaging feature. The value for specialists, beyond meeting Meaningful Use requirements, is more effective and efficient care and better patient experiences.

Converting Practice Buy-In to Patient Buy-In

Optimizing Patient PortalsWith buy-in from the front-office staff and clinicians, encouraging patients to use a portal is much easier. Care teams who introduce the use of a portal to patients as part of their treatment experience can drive increased adoption. When physicians tell patients and their caregivers about the portal, it's as if they're prescribing the portal as they would a medication, and we see that patients and their caregivers are very likely to log-in.

In our experience, oncology patients, their families, and other care givers are quickly adopting portal technology–four thousand patients per week are joining My Care Plus. Practices that have adopted My Care Plus are also seeing steady increases in portal usage as well as an increase in patients per day, per physician logging-in,  which is tremendous growth.

We tend to see higher engagement from acute or chronically ill patients due to the intensity of concern over their health status. Patients with other conditions, which require close monitoring like arthritis, heart disease or diabetes, may also be more motivated and benefit from use of a portal to manage their care. A portal is a powerful engagement tool for patients who need it most. And we fundamentally believe that a patient who is more engaged is more likely to have better outcomes.

Five Must-Haves from a Patient Portal to Increase Engagement

At the same time, unless the portal meets patients' needs, they won't use it. This is where user experience becomes critical in driving adoption. Five key patient portal elements that can help drive patient engagement include:

1) Features Patients Want

The first step is learning what patients want to know. We determined for the oncology patients who use My Care Plus, it's: When their next appointment is; what their latest lab or test results are; health and medical educational content specific to their type of cancer; and access to their medical record.

2) Ease of Use

The next step is making the information they want easy to find on the portal. The user interface should be flexible and very intuitive. Patients should be able to get the information they want with as few clicks as possible.

3) Accessibility for Family, Friends and Caregivers

The third step is providing access to the portal to patients' extended caregivers like family members. Patients with chronic medical conditions often need the support of others on their medical journey, and the portal helps enable that team effort.

4) Mobile and Digital Accessibility

The fourth step is creating access to the portal from as many digital platforms as possible, whether it's a desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone or application. Some 45 percent of the visits to My Care Plus, for example, come through our mobile app.

5) Patient Notifications

The final step is notifying patients electronically via e-mail or text that their portal was updated with new information whether it's new lab results or a reminder to fill a prescription.

Online portals can be effective patient engagement tools, particularly for specialty practices and the patients they treat. That's been our experience with My Care Plus, and we're confident that the lessons we've learned can help other practices achieve Meaningful Use objectives and see better health outcomes.

Dan Lodder

About the author

Dan Lodder is vice president and general manager for technology solutions at McKesson Specialty Health.