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How Does the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) Think About EHR Portals?

Posted Dec 10 2013 7:47pm
EHR portals at work?
The Disease Management Care Blog had this thoughtful reply logged onto its "Follow-Up" post on the topic of EHR patient portals. Logged by Rebecca M Coelius MD, Medical Officer for Innovation at HHS/ONC , the DMCB recognized that this was important enough to warrant its own separate page.

While we wish that the results were more conclusive and positive, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) applauds the meta-analysis and the recent upswing in articles on patient portals and other patient-facing technologies. The number of patients and caregivers who desire greater participation and transparency in their healthcare makes continued research in this area vital. Yet, in a close read of the full Annals of Internal Medicine meta-analysis article and in many of the studies it cites, there were unquestionably statistically significant positive clinical outcomes, as well as positive patient experiences, associated with certain patient portal functions.

The ONC does not believe that Health IT alone is a panacea, or that meeting the form of Meaningful Use , while not embracing the new functions the technologies it enables, is likely to result in measurable improvements. The study authors caution that it was case management that tipped the utility of portals from unclear or small to more substantial, but it is important to note that the case management activities happened via the portal itself. This is a perfect example of Health IT as an enabler of new ways of reaching and caring for patients; we would not separate the two concepts.

To the study’s described limitations, we offer two significant additions. First, the definition of a patient portal remains loosely specified, so it is difficult to make conclusive statements about the entire category. The meta-analysis did attempt to list which functions were present for each study, but half of the studies that looked at patient outcomes gave only a partial description of portal features, and a deeper assessment of the quality of functions and their relevance to the outcomes measured was not present for any study.

A more illustrative future approach would be to evaluate individual functions of portals for impact on patient participation in their care and specific health outcomes, and then ask what design principles and organizational contexts were necessary to make that function successful. For example, the impressive OpenNotes project demonstrated that patients with access to provider notes had a better understanding of their health and condition, improved recall of their care plan, and increased likelihood of taking medications as prescribed . In a New England Journal of Medicine study on weight loss interventions, over twice the number of patients in the remote support intervention groups (telephone, website access, and e-mail support) lost more than 5% of their weight versus the control group . Secure messaging and the ability to view personal health information are two cornerstones of portal functionality within Meaningful Use .

Second, more than 10% of these studies are ten years old, and over a third were published five or more years ago. We understand the necessity of adequate numbers for meta-analyses, but statistical significance does not necessarily confer relevant insights. Technology, and patient preferences and capabilities for using technology have fundamentally changed over the study time periods included, not to mention the maturation among health-care organizations themselves and the expectations of patients.

The very premise of the patient portal is a rapidly ageing one. As the ONC articulated in a 2013 Health Affairs article, there are shifting attitudes related to the traditional roles of patients and providers, and exploding demand and penetration of smartphones, health and wellness apps, and connected devices . We are moving the conversation from engaging people with our existing healthcare system through “portals”, to using technology to move outside our system to reach them every day where health truly happens. What we need to measure and incentivize in the future is not the value of portals, but the value of delivering the right information and intervention to the right person, at the right time, through the right interface based on an individual user’s context.
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