Physician practices, in the midst of heavy regulations and reimbursement cuts, are not likely to have an easy or efficient means of connecting with patients through new technology, which is why practices are increasingly leveraging web-based patient portals. Given the increase in unemployment and the changes in the economy in the past few years, U.S. demographics have shifted to include a much larger self-pay population. People are also much more fluent in using technology today, and often reference online price comparisons for healthcare. If a practice has the ability to reach these patients, it is more likely to be chosen for patient care.
Because today’s healthcare environment is made up of consumer-driven patients already online looking for information, a portal can help facilitate communication between patients and practices in a way that is convenient for both. Portals can be very basic and might contain a patient-facing section of a practice’s website.
A more sophisticated approach to patient portals entails leveraging secure software to provide patients with online access to their study results and billing information. This enables the patient to ask questions and connect with the practice in a convenient way -- with secure access.
Often, patients’ questions for their providers are simple and can be satisfied with information the practice already has on hand. Patients typically want basic information such as confirmation that their results have been sent to the referring physician.
Patient portals should also provide billing information to help consumers through the often-tricky process of working with their insurance companies or establishing payment plans. Practices can take the lead from insurance companies and make the information available online. In doing so, a practice will shift inquiries that it would have fielded on the phone to the patient portal; this makes the process more convenient for patients while freeing staff time.
In the future, some practices will even offer real-time communication with practice staff through online chat windows. That role could be filled by someone who works the front desk and would normally field questions on the phone, or it could even be a technologist who does not have a currently active task filling in to answer a patient’s questions.
Whatever approach physicians take to providing information for patients through the web, this capability will be critical to delivering optimal service as patients increasingly exercise more control over their care. Consumerism is changing the face of healthcare delivery, and a big part of this change means physician practices have to be much more service-oriented than healthcare previously needed to be.
Embracing the changes
The wake of health-IT-friendly legislation like the HITECH Act and the Affordable Care Act has given providers more incentive than ever before to invest in IT. This technology can connect them to other providers, enable them to provide higher quality care for patients with fewer reimbursement dollars and pave the way for their participation in future care delivery models.
In today’s healthcare market, practices that succeed will likely embrace technological changes and alter their business model accordingly. In the past, decision-making was more relaxed because revenue was more abundant. However, in today’s reimbursement climate, practice technology lends more importance to the success of the practice -- and physicians want access to the IT solutions available.
Given the proliferation of IT solutions in the market, a well-defined investment strategy is needed in order to avoid potential risks and revenue loss. The right strategy will help physicians protect and grow their businesses while letting them focus on patient care and the practice of medicine. Moving forward, technological solutions that enable practices to adeptly serve multiple hospital, health system or even ACO clients will definitely be needed.
Anthony Brown, CCP is the director of information technology with Medical Management Professionals, Inc. (MMP).