Giving Power to the Patient

Online medical portals allow patients to access critical health information.

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Dr. Steve Sanders of Saint Francis says online portals provide a way for patients to have access to critical information at any time.

Dr. Steve Sanders of Saint Francis says online portals provide a way for patients to have access to critical information at any time.

With access to the internet, we have a wealth of instant information. But when it comes to health-related topics, sometimes it is hard to know who to trust.

When we start investigating a medical question online, we often end up with more questions than answers and more fear than reassurance. However, many health systems and doctors’ offices have found a way to empower their patients through use of the internet. Many have begun to employ the use of online patient portals to provide information directly from a health care team to their patients.

We want [patients] to be able to ask their provider questions using secure electronic communications, schedule an appointment, pay their bill online and other conveniences that give them authority and peace of mind even outside of traditional doctor’s office hours.”

Saint Francis Health System uses a secure, online portal to allow “patients to have at their fingertips critical information regarding their health status, medications and previous history,” says Dr. Steve Sanders, vice president of medical affairs at Warren Clinic. This provides access to an individual’s records and necessary medical information at any time of day or night.

But what about patients with questions? These portals include ways to communicate directly with a doctor or other member of the healthcare team. Portal users can get clarification on health topics from someone familiar with their particular cases. “Often we’re able to identify problems that should be addressed quickly or alleviate a patient’s fears about a minor problem,” Sanders says.

INTEGRIS Health has adopted a single-patient portal to synthesize information from throughout the system, according to Hardy Watkins, vice president of communication, marketing and sales. The INTEGRIS system also facilitates provider/patient communication, allowing people to update their doctors after appointments, get prescription instructions clarified and, in some cases, request referrals to specialists, Watkins says.

The portals used by Saint Francis, INTEGRIS and many other health-care providers have a level of convenience for patients, beyond just receiving medical information that they can trust. “We want [patients] to be able to ask their provider questions using secure electronic communications, schedule an appointment, pay their bill online and other conveniences that give them authority and peace of mind even outside of traditional doctor’s office hours,” Watkins says.

Health-care providers experience benefits from using the portals as well. They are better able to communicate with their patients and ensure they have access to useful medical information. These portals can eliminate the need for patients to remember everything their doctors or nurses tell them, as they have access to notes and additional resources when they log on. “For providers, it provides another means of getting hold of patients about their lab results, remind them of upcoming appointments and provide topical information to keep them healthy,” Sanders says.

As with anything new, limitations exist. Watkins stresses the importance of doctors reminding their patients that online portals “do not replace the need for regularly scheduled visits.” Sanders cautions that if patients are in doubt about whether their conditions or symptoms can be handled via a portal, they should make appointments to be seen in person.

With the vast amounts of information available through the web, the average person can easily become overwhelmed and possibly misinformed when it comes to important health information. But patient portals, while not a replacement for visits to a doctor, can empower patients with valuable and trustworthy information.

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