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Leveraging the Patient Portal to Improve Patient Experience

Published on 1/8/2018

Donna Hart has been with Cook County Health & Hospitals System (CCHHS) for over 20 years. She was also integral in launching the MyCookCountyHealth patient portal, designed to advance patient engagement. At HIMSS 2015, Hart earned a Health Information Technology Men & Women Award for her work in leveraging technology to enhance care. CCHHS also achieved HIMSS 7 EMR Adoption Model℠ status.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to deliver a great patient experience.

All of us go and visit the physician at least once in a year – at least, I hope we do, for that annual checkup. What are we feeling when we enter the clinic or the hospital? Is it comfortable? Are our questions answered? Are our needs met?

These are the questions that come to mind when I consider the patient experience. They’re the same concerns that apply in other industries like retail, where customer satisfaction directly correlates to customer loyalty and better business outcomes.

I use the words “customers” and “patients” interchangeably, because they are – our patients are our customers. We talk a great deal about the patient experience and patient satisfaction today, but before those conversations were front-and-center, I was thinking about customer service. The most successful retail companies were the ones that prioritized the customer, and I’ve always believed the health care organizations have a lot to learn about what that means. It’s not just treating an illness. It’s a lot deeper than that.

Improving experience with the patient portal

Thanks to shifts in consumer behavior patterns and technological advancements, the health care industry is facing an increasingly savvy customer base that has high expectations when it comes to services and treatment. This means that today’s hospitals and health care systems need to turn their attention not only to specific parts of the patient experience – not just to treating a specific care episode or prescribing a medication for an illness – but on the entire span of the patient’s interaction with the organization.

I think of the customer experience as spanning the time that the patient first enters the facility until the time that the patient receives a clinical bill. When we were talking about improving the patient experience at Cook County Health & Hospitals System (CCHHS), it was the beginning of that timeline that I thought about: Most people are used to being able to access data electronically, whether that’s their online order history or their Fitbit data. I wanted to ensure that our patients would have a portal that would be a quick reference for them to get answers and information quickly and efficiently. Ease of use was particularly critical.

Today, through the MyCookCountyHealth portal, patients can view lab results, medical documents and request future appointments. They can request medication renewals and communicate with their providers. They can do all this without having their medical ID number on hand – something that we knew would be hard for many people to memorize or keep track of.

These were features we knew were necessary based on feedback from our patients and physicians. Part of updating our patient portal, of course, had to do with meeting the requirements of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Electronic Health Record (EHR) Incentive Program. But for us, it was part of a broader reach. It was us asking: What is right for the patient?

Fostering patient loyalty through communication and the patient portal

One of the goals of a patient portal should be to build patient trust and loyalty. I want for that patient to contact their physician with the questions. I want them to reach out electronically to their care team and get answers quickly. We designed our portal to incorporate multiple languages so that we could communicate effectively with our broad patient base (there are more than 319,000 individuals who receive care at CCHHS each year).

But there are still people who don’t want to use the patient portal at all. To counter some of the hesitation, computer fright, fear of the unknown or even lack of access to technology, we established computer kiosks throughout our facility. We had handouts to educate our population on using the kiosks and we emphasized patient education. We wanted to make sure our patients understood that, just as they're more involved with their health and care, our portal is part of that journey – it’s another tool to monitor to help them stay on track with their health plan.

The patient portal as a care coordination tool

It’s important to note that there’s no replacing the element of human touch. The patient portal can be a savvy communication tool, but we can’t forget the human side. The human side is the most important side of this, because we care about our patients, and we don't want them to feel like responses to their serious medical concerns are automated or stripped of a personal touch. The portal will always be an integral tool for the care coordination of the patient.

For me, the moment I knew our patient portal succeeded was when one of our internal medicine physicians took me aside a few months after we’d implemented MyCookCountyHealth. She described how packed her workdays were: Her time was scheduled with patients back-to-back, and it was sometimes impossible for her to reach out and call a patient from the floor or the office. The portal, she said, made communication and collaboration easer between her and her patients. She could answer several patient questions in one sitting.

This exchange made me think about the continuum of care around and care coordination for our patients. How many of us consider the portal as one of the key components of care coordination? I do.

We will always strive to improve the portal and give our patients ease of use and functionality at their fingertips. For me, for my organization and for other health care systems, it’s important that the portal becomes an integrated part of people’s lifestyles – because it’s ultimately about making healthy outcomes more accessible for our patients.

Our goal is to modernize each patient’s health care experience, making it easier for them to engage with their organization and care team members, strengthen patient loyalty and increase satisfaction. Learn more about our patient solutions here.