Patients who use online patient portals are 50% more likely to get a flu shot and twice as likely to have their blood pressure checked as compared to patients who do not interact with these portals.
A new Penn Medicine study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, also showed that patients using portals were 50% more likely to have their cholesterol checked, adding to the list of preventive health behaviors linked to portal use.
Chronic conditions -- heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and the like -- affect more than half of U.S. adults, and primary prevention measures such as screenings and monitorings are considered among the top strategies for reducing their prevalence.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT
Online portals have increasingly become more prevalent over the last decade as health systems have shifted toward using the electronic health record rather than paper charts. Most patient portals focus on streamlining communications regarding things like appointment reminders and physician referrals, so the research team decided to look at two things: the effect of portal use on patients' preventive health behaviors, and how usage might affect the status of chronic illnesses, including diabetes and hypertension.
While the study showed that portal usage was linked to significant improvements in preventive health behaviors, the researchers found no meaningful changes in chronic illness prevalence.
The lead author on the study, Jing Huang, PhD, an assistant professor of biostatistics, wrote that while patient portals seem to be effective at changing patient behavior, "behavior is just one factor in the complicated equation to change health outcomes."
Looking beyond health outcomes data, the researchers found differences in the characteristics of the patients who used the portal versus those who did not. A group of 10,000 patients from the University of Pennsylvania Health System who were 50 years or older were analyzed.
Reviewing data from between 2014 and 2016, the findings showed that roughly 59 percent had registered on the MyPennMedicine portal, which made them "users" within the study's parameters.
Users of the portal skewed younger than non-users -- by about three years, on average -- and had higher incomes, roughly $72,000 compared to $63,000 annually. The proportion of Caucasian patients was significantly higher in the user category (73%) than in the non-user category (53%). And 61% of portal users paid for care with commercial insurance, while just 40% of the non-users paid with commercial insurance.
Moving forward, the researchers plan to evaluate how the use of portals over time affect people's chronic health conditions. Since the clinical study only viewed data collected for two years and saw no distinctions in chronic health outcomes, a longer look might provide insight into whether portals can be used to provide better care for these conditions.
THE LARGER TREND
Patient portals have evolved over time, transitioning from simple logins to a health system's data to mobile apps that provide access to those systems.
Several companies have tried to make a run at creating a portal that establishes an industry standard, a model for all others to follow. But those efforts, from giants like Google and Apple, have met with only varying levels of success.
When they're effective, patient portals can often save providers overhead. Though each one is different, they can offer financial benefits that improve collections, reduce staff workload and help drive engaged patients with better health outcomes.
That said, they're not without issues. In a July study, researchers looked at the use of patient portals while people are admitted in the hospital. Over a one-year period, they found patients age 60 and over used the portal less than patients ages 18 to 29, and African American patients used the portal less than white patients.