Patient portals and EMRs: Each requires a different skillset

Most readers know that an EMR (electronic medical record) is the back-end software that runs a health care organization. EMRs have been around for a while. Recently most large hospitals and health systems have begun building out the patient-facing version of their EMR; allowing patients to communicate electronically with their doctors, refill prescriptions, schedule appointments, and view clinical information.

I’ve written at length about the differences between B2B software and B2C software and how B2B software is generally not very good (particularly from a usability perspective). And it’s not very good simply because it can get away with not being very good. B2B companies often just need a good salesperson that can lock-in long-term contracts to be successful. Once the software is purchased, it’s not easy for users to switch.

B2C companies, on the other hand, need an incredible product to be successful. If your user experience isn’t flawless, you cannot survive in the B2C space. The switching costs for consumers are near zero — the user experience must be incredible. Product is much more important than distribution. B2C user satisfaction scores are significantly higher than B2C scores.

Applying this to health care, if you’re a hospital and your EMR is hard to use, your employees will still use it because they have to — they can’t easily switch to a competitor.

But if your patient portal is bad you will lose patients instantly. It’s too easy for patients to switch to something else.

The Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) published a good report talking about patient portals.  They noted that despite the difficulty of building a wonderful online consumer experience and the totally different skill set required to execute on it, 80 percent of hospitals surveyed chose their patient portal vendor simply because it was the same vendor that provides their EMR (the top three portals were made by Epic, Cerner and McKesson). All of these vendors have been building B2B enterprise software systems for more than 30 years. They’re all wonderful companies. But they have no idea how to build a patient facing product. Their management, engineering talent, sales force, culture and DNA is all about B2B. They have almost no chance of building a world class consumer product. That’s not a knock on these companies; it’s just reality. You can’t be good at both.

As we transition to a world where the patient is in the driver’s seat, exposing patients to old-fashioned enterprise software code and interfaces is not a good idea. Hospitals shouldn’t let a piece of software touch their customers unless it’s been vetted and tested fully, and it’s clear that patients love it. If you check out the satisfaction scores for most patient portal apps, you’ll find that most patients despise them (one of them I looked at last week had 2,000 reviews in the iOS app store and more than 1,500 of them were only 1 star).

Patients are becoming consumers. They want slick, easy, mobile, beautiful, simple and seamless web experiences. If the software that touches patients doesn’t give them that they’re going to go somewhere that does.

Now, in defense of these hospitals let it be known that there aren’t a lot of great consumer-focused software companies building-out patient portals. So in the short term, they might have no choice. But I’d encourage CIOs that are making patient portal investments to consider the consumer and to cautiously enter into flexible and short term contracts with these patient portal vendors.

You should be careful about buying groceries from the company that fixes your car. And you should be careful about buying consumer-facing software from the company that built your EMR.

Brian Manning helps early stage technology companies with business development, product development, and marketing. He blogs at his self-titled site, Brian Manning.

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