Patient Portals are only used by 33% of Patients to View Health Data

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule allows patients to view the health information held by their providers. According to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) release there is only a relatively small amount of people availing of this service through patient portals.

The Medicare Electronic Health Record Incentive Program encouraged healthcare providers to change from paper to electronic medical record. As a result now close to 90% of patients of the participating providers have access to patient portals where they can the health data pertaining to them. Despite the fact that patients now have this access, fewer than 33% of patients are using these patient portals to view their health information.

In a bid to ascertain why the patients are not availing of this service the GAO looked at patient health information access from the patients’ perspective, conducting interviews with patients.

From the healthcare organizations that were included in the Medicare EHR Program, 88% of hospitals and 87% of professionals provided patients with access to their health information online. However, only 15% of hospital patients and 30% of other providers’ patients accessed their data via the online portals.

When these online patient portals are used to access health data it is normally preceding a medical appointment or soon afterwards to view the results of any medical tests. Health data is also often accessed in order to share health data with a new healthcare provider. However, in the majority of cases, patients were utilizing the portals to schedule appointments, set reminders or order medication prescription refills.

The issue does not seem to be a lack of interest in accessing this health information, rather it is simply one of frustration. The act of setting up access to patient portals and viewing health data does take some time. If, as in most cases, patients have multiple healthcare providers and must repeat the same process for each health provider. Then they must use a separate portal for each health provider and manage separate login information for each one. Further, there is no standardization across the patient portals. Each one requires patients to ascertain how to access their health information and familiarize themselves with the portal they are using.

Once the patient portals have been correctly set up, the report found that patients often discover incomplete or inaccurate information, with information inconsistent among the different health providers. It was found that if all information could be transferred electronically between each provider or aggregated in one place the process would be much easier. However patients were confused by the process and were unaware if this was possible, and if so, how it could be done. A lot  patients did not even know if their personal health information could be downloaded.

GAO pointed to the fact that while the HHS has been encouraging healthcare providers to allow patients access to health data via patient portals, there does not appear to have been any subsequent follow up. GAO believes that the HHS may be unaware of how effective its program has been. As a result the GAO has recommended HHS set up some performance measures to investigate whether its current efforts are actually being successful.