If you build a patient portal, why won't they come? 4 thoughts from PatientPay CEO Tom Furr

Since the introduction of the Meaningful Use program, hospitals and health systems have increasingly looked to online portals to engage their patient populations. Providers have found patient engagement more difficult than first anticipated, however, and for many hospitals and physician practices, medical payments received by mail far exceeds payments made online.

Tom Furr, CEO and founder of PatientPay, shared his expertise on healthcare billing technology with Becker's Hospital Review to address the frustration many physician practices have with their online portals.

PatientPay offers paperless billing and payment solutions to both healthcare providers and revenue cycle management firms.

1. Portals are required under Meaningful Use. Under Meaningful Use, hospitals and physician practices are required to make health information more available to patients. For instance, providers must give patients access to parts of their health record, access to changes in health information, clinical summaries after each patient visit and patient-specific education resources. Mr. Furr believes some physician practices, alienated by the federal mandate and forced to spend money on MU certified platforms, haven't effectively communicated or marketed the platforms to truly engage their patients. "Bending the words of W.P. Kinsella, author of Field of Dreams, let me suggest vendors didn't care if patients came since practices were forced to buy their portals," says Mr. Furr.

2. Lack of patient usability. When asked to name their top frustration with medical portals, 33 percent of patients reported having difficulty with a confusing interface, according to 2014 survey from Software Advice. "The typical user interface found on a portal is reminiscent of screens last seen on factory automation software from the early 1990's — graphically uninspiring and non-intuitive," says Mr. Furr. When patients do use online payment tools on portals, often times they report having difficulty understanding digital medical bills that don't reflect the format, charges or explanation of benefits of their paper bills, Mr. Furr adds.  

3. Portals were designed for clinical, not financial, convenience. Portals have been designed around the patient-physician exchange of health information, enabling patients to see lab results, look at medical records, schedule appointments and leave messages about health concerns with their physicians. "They were never designed to serve as points of [financial] transaction between practice and patient," says Mr. Furr. For instance, most practices that have added bill pay capabilities to their portal platforms haven't changed their billing practices to encourage patients to take advantage of online payment options.

4. Providers continue to send paper bills. Studies by Deloitte, Kaiser Permanente and JP Morgan Chase indicate a clear majority of Americans prefer to get medical bills in their inboxes instead of their mailboxes. Deloitte found 70 percent of patients would be interested in online payment options. However, 98 percent of healthcare providers continue to mail paper bills to patients to solicit payment, whether or not providers offer payment options through their patient portal. "Portals aren't working, not because patients don't want to pay medical bills electronically," says Mr. Furr. Rather, patients don't use portals because they have no compelling reason to use them.