Most people (94%) say that having easy access to their medical records is “important” or “very important” to them, according to a national survey by the Commonwealth Fund.

Would you like to be able to send and receive messages from your doctor and track your personal health from the comfort of your own home computer or smartphone?  Patient portals provide a free and easy way to do that. Doctors and patients are finding this is an effective way to increase and improve communications and engagement.

What is a patient portal?

Think of it as a doorway to all your health care information in one place. A patient portal is a secure website available from any computer with an internet connection or a smartphone. It is available 24-hours every day and gives you the ability to:

  • Send and receive private messages from your doctor, and his or her nurse
  • Ask questions and get answers
  • Schedule or cancel appointments; see your future appointments
  • Complete registration or pre-visit documents at a convenient time and place where you can look up information
  • Use forms that are customized for your age, sex and chronic disease status
  • View your test results and lab tests
  • Request prescription refills
  • See your medications list
  • See your vaccination history
  • Review records and discharge summaries if you’ve been hospitalized
  • Read your doctor’s notes after each visit
  • Review your overall care plan
  • Get referrals to specialists
  • Set up payment plans and pay your bill online
  • View educational materials about your health

How do I start using a patient portal?

Think of your patient portal as a place where you can talk to your doctor and his staff and they will hear you. If you can use email, you can use a patient portal.

Patient portals are the same technology used by businesses, schools, online shopping, government and just about every other function of modern life.

A patient portal requires you to register and set up a user name and secret password. Your doctor’s office can show you how to register, answer your questions and help you get started.

The only thing you need is a secure computer or a smartphone (able to access email). You should always access the portal from a personal computer where you or a family member controls access, or from a smartphone. If you need to use a public computer, such as a public library, be sure it is a secure computer. Don’t take the risk of having your information stolen.

Why use a patient portal?

Better communication. The main reason to start using a patient portal it to improve communication between you and your doctor. Doctors who understand their patients and patients who feel comfortable talking with their doctors form a stronger bond. A strong relationship means better, more effective health care for you.

Continuity of care. Communication through a portal helps you better understand how your doctor provides care. It gets you and your doctor on the same page, helping to insure your treatment continues smoothly, without interruption.

Single point of access for all your health-related information. In most cases, your doctor’s electronic health records system is connected to the patient portal.

More quality time. Do you feel like your doctor spends too little time with you? Patient portals let you ask questions and discuss your health and care plan as often as you need to. It can help your doctor get to know you better. That translates into better health care for you.

Self-manage your illness. You can have a patient portal with your primary care doctor, specialists, hospitals and clinics, even your health insurance plan. A portal can empower you to manage each spell of illness. For patients with chronic diseases, online patient portals were found to improve chronic disease management by about 10 percent in a recent California study.

Puts you in control of your health. The ability to view your health records makes it easier to be involved in and control your health care. An informed patient is a healthier patient. Department of Veteran’s Affairs patients said they had better control over their health, according to a 2013 study.

Improved accuracy. Portals can produce more complete and accurate forms and other information. Forms are entered on a keyboard so handwriting or retyping errors by office staff are reduced. For example, when you use the portal to request a prescription refill, you can be sure the correct medicine, patient information and dosage is transmitted to your pharmacist. It also saves the pharmacist time by eliminating calls and call-backs to the doctor’s office. Also, when you view your information via a patient portal, you can easily and quickly spot errors or gaps in the information and ask that it be corrected.

Doctors and patients like it. The messages you put on the portal go straight to your medical chart. This lets your doctor be better prepared for your appointment. The doctor will have all your personal information in one place when he or she responds to you. A growing trend before office visits is for patients to list on the portal the two or three most important issues they want to discuss during an office visit (called OpenNotes). It’s easy to get nervous or forgetful once the doctor comes in the room. Having your most pressing concerns already on the computer screen in front of your doctor can reduce your anxiety.

In an OpenNotes survey of use, most (78%) doctors said they were better prepared by reading a patient’s self-entered notes before an office visit; 82 percent of patients also said they felt more prepared. Both doctors and patients said pre-visit-entered notes improved their understanding of patients’ concerns (for doctors) and understanding their care and treatment options (for patients). Almost 80 percent of patients said it made the visit more efficient; 63 percent of doctors agreed. Almost 80 percent of patients said it improved communication; 74 percent of doctors agreed. A physician, responding to the survey, said, “The value of reading something in someone’s writing can give you an idea of how they’re really feeling.”

AFMC’s 2016 Patient Engagement Satisfaction Survey of Arkansas Medicaid patients revealed that 77 to 90 percent of Medicaid patients were “very satisfied/somewhat satisfied with using the portal.” It showed that nearly 80 percent of primary care doctors offer a patient portal. The larger the practice, or if affiliated with a hospital, the more likely it is to offer a patient portal. In Arkansas, patients said the biggest reason for not using a portal was because they don’t use email or the internet. Of the respondents who did use a portal, the most popular use was for viewing test/lab results and reviewing summaries of office visits. Portals were also popular for viewing health history, medication lists and shot records. The survey showed that women were far more likely to use a portal than men (85% compared to only 15% for men). Patients between the ages of 18 to 54 years were the largest group of portal users.

Empowers your caregiver or family. A portal gives you the opportunity to share your health information with a family member or close friend. They can help you make health care decisions and stay current with your care needs and treatment plan. They can become a more effective advocate for the type of care you want. Advocates are important in today’s complex and ever-changing health care system.

Track family members’ care. Portals are a great tool for parents to keep track of their children’s health – from the vaccines they need to required checkups for school and sports.

Learning opportunity. Viewing your health records provides a starting point to do online research about your health conditions and concerns. An informed patient is a better, healthier patient.

Saves money. Using a patient portal can save money because small concerns can be addressed on the portal, saving you a costly in-person visit.

I still have security concerns …

Patients who didn’t use or didn’t want to use a patient portal said they had concerns about internet security. Patient portals have several technical safeguards that protect your secure access. You access the patient portal with an encrypted, password-protected login. There’s an “audit trail” that keeps a record of who has accessed your information, what changes were made and when.

If you don’t have a computer or smartphone, you can use computers at public libraries, schools or community centers. Family members can also a good source of help and computer access.

Remember, using a patient portal is voluntary. You may stop using it at any time. But we think you’ll enjoy the convenience. Call your health providers today and ask about patient portal options, if you haven’t already signed up.