GAO: Patient Portals Underutilized by Patients with Access

Any consumer who has to contend with one—if not several—chronic illnesses knows how time consuming it can be to juggle treatments. A diabetic with a heart condition, for example, would likely see the following care providers, at a minimum: an endocrinologist, a primary care physician, and a cardiologist. What’s more, each specialist probably has a set of regular labs and diagnostic tests for their patient. If the patients are lucky, all of those physicians are based out of the same provider network that shares one electronic health record (EHR). But if they’re an engaged patient that likes to shop around in pursuit of the best physician for their individual needs, keeping all of their providers on the same page can become tricky—fast. Especially if the either the patient or provider moves a town or city over.

A blog post by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) discussing the findings of its survey into patient portal accessibility aptly explains why even portal-savvy patients don’t take advantage of all that’s available to them electronically.

“Health care providers usually give patients access to their medical records through a patient portal. However, patients often receive access to a different portal for each provider they visit, and must manage separate login information for each one,” the GAO authors wrote. “The patients we interviewed were frustrated with the amount of time and effort it took to set up these portals, understand each portal’s user interface, and manage all the different passwords.”

According to GAO’s survey, on average, healthcare providers who participated in the “meaningful use” EHR Incentive Program offered access to almost 90 percent of their patients. However, less than one-third of those patients used it.

The GAO offered two primary recommendations to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), which works with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to design and implement meaningful use.

  1. To help ensure that its efforts to increase patients’ electronic access to health information are successful, the Secretary of HHS should direct ONC to develop performance measures to assess outcomes of key efforts related to patients’ electronic access to longitudinal health information. Such actions may include, for example, determining whether the number of providers that participate in these initiatives have higher rates of patient access to electronic health information.
  2. To help ensure that its efforts to increase patients’ electronic access to health information are successful, the Secretary of HHS should direct ONC to use the information these performance measures provide to make program adjustments, as appropriate. Such actions may include, for example, assessing the status of program operations or identifying areas that need improvement in order to help achieve program goals related to increasing patients’ ability to access their health information electronically.


Click here to read the GAO report.


Mary Butler is the associate editor at The Journal of AHIMA.

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