Only One Third of Patients Use Patient Portals to View Health Data

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule permits patients to access the health information held by their providers, yet relatively few patients are exercising that right, according to a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, at least through patient portals.

The Medicare Electronic Health Record Incentive Program encouraged healthcare providers to transition from paper to electronic medical records and now almost 90% of patients of participating providers have access to patient portals where they can view their health data. Even though patients have been provided with access, fewer than a third of patients are using patient portals to view their health information.

GAO looked at patient health information access from the patients’ perspective, conducting interviews with patients to find out why they are not taking advantage of this valuable resource.

Out of the healthcare organizations that participated in the Medicare EHR Program, 88% of hospitals and 87% of professionals offered patients access to their health information online, yet only 15% of hospital patients and 30% of other providers’ patients accessed their data online.

When patient portals are used to access health data it is usually preceding a medical appointment or soon afterwards to view medical test results. Information is also commonly accessed in order to share health data with a new healthcare provider. However, mostly, patients were using the portals to schedule appointments, set reminders or order medication refills.

The problem does not appear to be a lack of interest in viewing or obtaining health information, rather it is one of frustration. The process of setting up access to patient portals and viewing health data is time consuming. Patients usually have multiple healthcare providers and must repeat the process for each provider. In order to view all their health information, they must use a different portal for each provider and manage separate login information for each. Further, patient portals are not standardized. Each requires patients to learn how to access their information and familiarize themselves with the portal.

When the patient portals have been set up, patients often discover incomplete or inaccurate information, with information inconsistent among different providers. It would make life easier if all information could be transferred electronically between each provider or aggregated in one place, yet patients were confused by the process and were unaware if this was possible, and if so, how it could be done. Many patients did not even know if their health information could be downloaded or transmitted.

GAO pointed out that while the HHS has been encouraging healthcare providers to give patients access to health data via patient portals, there does not appear to have been any follow up. GAO says the HHS appears to be unaware of how effective its program has been. GAO has recommended HHS set up some performance measures to determine whether its efforts are actually working.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.