Feedback your patients wish you knew about portals

I’m not a doctor.  And sure, you know your patients better than I do. But, I have been a patient and as a patient, I know how we think. As someone who works in health IT helping to create software to better connect patients and providers, I like to think I have a hypersensitive pulse on what’s going on.

I know that as patients, sometimes we get frustrated trying to solve our health problems and the problems of those we love. We also know that we can’t do it alone.

We need your help, and we need technology that is going to help us in our pursuit of the best care possible. Patient portals really affect us, and, in fact, we have a lot to say about this topic. In addition to my own perspective, over the past year and a half I’ve conducted numerous interviews and surveys on patient portals to garner feedback from end users.

This article explores some of my findings and interesting quotes straight from the mouths of patients. It also offers a few tips on how to utilize patient feedback to keep your patients happy and engaged.

1. Some of us like it old school. Can we get some options, please? Although most of us understand why people are excited about taking things digital, sometimes we, as patients, just aren’t quite ready for new technology. For some, the idea of change is burdensome, keeping us longing for simpler times. As one patient remarks on the concept of patient portals, “I know they are the future and like computers in general we might as well jump in and learn how to use them. I will say though, I miss the days of paper charts.”

Tip: It might not make sense to flip the switch to digital overnight. Instead, be sure to ease patients into the concept of managing health information online. At first, you can provide patients with online access as an option, while still providing more traditional alternatives.

 2. We’ll use them, if they are simple. We’re sick of using clumsy, cluttered portals that look like they were created at the turn of the century. It’s extremely frustrating to be forced to use technology when we do not understand the flow of the interface. The look and feel of a patient portal can make or break patient adoption, as demonstrated by this remark: “As long as the portal is streamlined and clear/intuitive to understand I think it is useful. In the past I have used one that had a lot of tabs and various categories that weren’t necessary and added visual clutter.”

Tip: Don’t let your portal’s design be a pain point. Take the necessary time to create a simple and user-friendly design.  The good news is that you don’t have to start from scratch when coming up with your concept. Take inventory on what other providers are doing. Learn from their portal successes and missteps.

3. We’re concerned about losing face-to-face time. And we are nervous about getting bad news from our doctors over the Internet. The general consensus is that nothing beats talking face-to-face with medical experts, but having a portal is convenient for questions, minor concerns, and access to our health data. The thought of losing personalized interactions with our doctors is a big concern as voiced by a few patients:

“I think they [patient portals] are good if you have just a quick, simple question that wouldn’t require a visit to the doctor. I am, however, concerned about losing the face to face contact.”

“I am always nervous when an email says, ‘You have important info from your doctor; please log on’ because I don’t want to get bad news by email without the possibility of asking questions/follow up/counseling.”

“My doctor’s responses are often canned … if medical offices had a more personalized way to respond to a mass of patient emails that would definitely help their practice.”

Tip: Keep the human element alive and well throughout your digital communications. Be respectful and responsive. It helps to create a clear list of guidelines for digital interaction and then review the guidelines with patients. At a minimum, make sure patients are aware of the types of information that will be shared, who can they contact if they have additional questions, and how quickly will they be hearing back from you.

4. We’d like access to medical images, too. It’s helpful to have all of your medical information in one place. The keyword in that sentence was all. The inclusion of medical images in patient portals is often overlooked. We’re getting tired of trying to store and share medical images the traditional way. The concept of receiving images in the mail can be an annoyance for patients, and clearly a sore subject for this particular patient: “In terms of medical records and images they still have to print a stack of paper, make some “films,” and then mail them to me. Hello, heard of a PDF anybody? McFly? McFly? McFly?”

Patients would like to have control over their imaging data so that they can access or share it when needed. “When you move or if you’re seeking a second opinion, it’d be awesome to have your own data stored where you want it- to share as you see fit. Images are the property of the patient and they should have the right to take it wherever they need it.”

Tip: Don’t forget about images. Imaging can be the most difficult of health data for your patients to manage and share. In order to solve this challenge for your patients, it’s critical that your portal supports image files. Integrating an imaging portal onto your website is a lot easier than you think.  Patient portals for imaging can be imbedded right into your website or current workflow, and accessed at any time by your patients.


When it comes down to it, patient portals are still a novel concept.  There’s a lot to be learned, and even more to be implemented. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, you know your patients better than I do. Start talking to them about what they want to see and what they expect.  You might be surprised by the feedback you get.

Dana Tee is marketing manager, DICOM Grid, and blogs at the Medical Imaging and Healthcare IT News Blog.

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  • Margalit Gur-Arie

    Interesting…. So during this market research, were you able to find out how much patients are willing to pay for “what they want to see and what they expect” in regards to portals?
    And if they’re not willing to pay a dime, where do they expect the money for these things to come from? Reductions in availability of medical services? Increased insurance premiums, co-pays, and deductibles? Sale of their personal medical records to marketers? Reductions in physicians and staff take-home pay? Charitable donations from IT companies?

    • guest

      All of the above…except for that last one, probably.

  • Dr. Drake Ramoray

    I think your job in IT biases your opinion. How about you make them functional and useful first. Then you wouldn’t have to have them mandated by te government. If they were convenient, useful, or improved patient care physicians would adopt them. Seeing as they are none of the above they are forced upon us by administrative fiat and then someone in the field is surprised we don’t want to use them?

  • guest

    Fascinating insights, all of which seem very on target, but may I ask why they are being presented to audience of medical practitioners? Are you somehow under the impression that we design these portals ourselves, or really have any input at all into the way they are constructed and deployed? That seems like an odd misconception for an IT person to have…

  • azmd

    So…let me get this straight: someone who “works in health IT helping to create software to better connect patients and providers” is complaining about using “clumsy, cluttered portals that look like they were designed at the turn of the century???”
    Have you considered designing some better portals, since that is apparently the line of work you’re in? Or advocating for your company to design such portals?

  • Dr. Drake Ramoray

    Physicians as a whole will not embrace them until it makes it easier for us to our job. I don’t have a smartphone because somebody made me, I have hit because it’s better and more efficient for my daily life. My practice just bought a new ultrasound machine (admittedly the one we had was old) but now I can look at any images on any computer in our office. No more disks we just store them on the server. It has better resolution, makes documentation for billing easier, and is readily accessible.
    The handful of portals I have seen are archaic pieces of junk. One companies makes you click on each individual lab result (each individual item on a chemistry panel). From a physician perspective I will continue to have no interest in portals until I see one that actually streamlines patient care, shows a benefit to patients and actually improves patient care. If it made my job easier and improved patient care, I probably wouldn’t even complain about having to pay for it

  • guest

    Isn’t this what there are focus groups for? A patient portal is no different than any other product. You go to a group of consumers and do a granular analysis of what they like and don’t like, and design the product accordingly. I am not sure what the barriers are to fully executing this process in the arena of IT products, but surely designing a product with an effective user interface should not be rocket science, should it?
    P.S. I am still not sure what gives you the idea that MDs are the “gatekeepers” for patient facing technology. Those of us who work in large healthcare systems are forced to use whatever product our administrators decided was best (Hello, EPIC) and practitioners in smaller offices appear to have a limited array of poorly designed products to choose from. As for physicians playing a key role in the development of technology, may I ask how many actively practicing MDs your company pays to assist with the development of your products?

  • buzzkillerjsmith

    I know you’re not a doc, so you might not realize that we are short of time. For many of us, spending 4 minutes in the bathroom means going home 4 minutes later. I don’t need more things to do in my day.

    To be blunt, fooling with portals is of zero importance to most of us unless we can find one that saves us time or money and then we’ll flock to it. I don’t see anything like that here– or anywhere.

  • Margaret Fleming

    1. I wish I’d said that!
    2. Dear Guest: Call around. Ask some doctors whose patients love their portal. Pretend you have to type in the six-inch long address. If the designer can’t make it simple, why not Just Say No. Until you find somebody good. Irritated patients are not a good idea. And patients like me who can’t type numbers call the office anyway.

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