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Patient portals saving medical practices in overhead, improving collections, managers say

Experts say patient portals can offer financial benefits that improve collections, reduce staff workload and better engage patients.

Solutions like the CareCloud patient portal are saving practice managers big bucks.

Michael Middleton, MD, credits online patient portals with helping him grow his Orlando, Florida-based pediatric practice more than three-fold in two-and-a-half years – while keeping staff cost increases at 20 percent.

"The primary way it's benefited us financially is by not forcing us to hire more admins as our practice has grown," he said. "The efficiency comes with instantly directing the right message to the right person. The other part is accountability; things are written down not verbalized."

Indeed, patient portals can offer financial benefits that improve collections, reduce staff workload and help drive engaged patients with better health outcomes.

[Also: Cincinnati Children's Hospital grows collections through 'consumer-friendly' portal]

Lesley Kadlec, director of health information management practice excellence at American Health Information Management Association, says portals "automate and streamline many processes that previously required staff time, such as setting up appointments, requesting prescription refills, asking and answering questions and providing account and billing information.

"Beyond administrative tasks, portals can distribute educational resources and targeted information to the appropriate audience," she said.

Middleton, who uses online portals to triage non-emergent patient questions, says "previously, we'd schedule an appointment, be in a room together. They'd verbalize, I'd type and then get to the therapeutic part of the visit."

Now, on the other hand, "we start the appointment at the mid-point. It's much more efficient, not to mention details are relayed more thoroughly," he says.

[Also: Paying it forward: How Houston Methodist improved collections, lifting margins]

According to a report from athenahealth, which develops patient portals of its own, such triaging enabled one practice to contain physician email responses to about 20 percent of patient inquiries.

Use of secure email allowed physicians respond to patients at their convenience and view "inquiries in the context of the full patient record, which they may not have at hand when patients call," according to the report. "All of these can improve provider productivity, which, in turn, can improve practice finances."

Portals also let patients receive electronic statements and pay their bills online. Summit Medical Group, a 500-physician group in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, receives 30 percent of its patient payments via online portals, according to the report.

Middleton, for his part, says about 7 percent of payments come through the portal. He hopes that will increase as the convenience makes it "easier for families to sign up and utilize" the online tool.

"Initially, one of the obstacles we had was patients weren't linked by families," he said. "If a patient had four kids, they'd have four portal accounts. Sign-up and sign-on has become much easier. There's a great mobile app for our patients."

[Also: Revenue cycle tips: Improve customer service, boost collections]

Josh Gray, vice president, athenaResearch, says online access translates into financial rewards: "When clients increase portal adoption by 20 percent or more, they see improvements in patient pay yields of four to eight percent.

"They get paid more and faster," he said. "If you can get a patient on a portal, they're 13 percent more likely to return. The value of the patient who returns is eight to 20 percent higher."

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The athenahealth report echoes this point, noting that patients, who return to a practice at least once generate more than $800 in ambulatory practice collections over three years, versus $147 for those who don't.

Kadlec describes consumer engagement "a high priority" for healthcare today, and one "likely to increase as health information technologies, like portals, continue to evolve." She adds that, "as healthcare delivery moves toward value-based reimbursement, patient care and consumer engagement are becoming increasingly intertwined."

Patients "expect to have insight into their care and demand value for their healthcare dollar, particularly in an environment where healthcare costs are rising and reimbursement is decreasing," she said. "Patient portals are becoming a technological catalyst that allow patients to interact and communicate with their healthcare providers in a 24/7 environment."

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