Best Practices for Patient Portals

According to Gartner, by 2016, 89% of companies will compete mostly on customer/consumer experience. Now, the skeptics in the world might doubt that healthcare will see this large of a percentage of their target audience focused on customer experience, but most progressive Healthcare Organizations are getting very focused on thinking of patient and caregivers as “consumers.”

By extension, this paradigm shift to thinking of patients and caregivers as consumers must include how Healthcare Organizations approach their patient portals.

According to a recent ONC report (published Sept 2014), only 3 in 10 individuals had online access to their medical records last year (2013). At the same time, the survey reveals that among individuals offered access to their online health records, 46% viewed their online record at least once. This, coupled with other trends (i.e., quantified self), shows that patients and caregivers have an interest in utilizing their patient portals. However, patient portals still have a way to go to be what most users would consider user-friendly, and we have yet to see an instance of patient portal which anyone enjoys using.

Key Components of “Best in Class” Patient Portals

Many factors drive making a product user-friendly. When it comes to patient portals, highlighted below are several components to consider. These components will facilitate greater use and engagement.

  1. Branding, User Experience, and Functionality:
    • Where possible, maintain a maniacal focus on the user experience including:
    • Branding the patient portal with your practice name/health system’s name by using visual styling, such as your practice’s/health system’s logo, using a consistent color palette, using a consistent font, using consistent photos/imagery, etc.
    • Understanding and focusing on the key tasks most patients and caregivers will do within the portal, such as:
      • Viewing test results
      • Corresponding with clinicians in a secure manner
      • Requesting appointments and the ability to schedule appointments
      • Registering as a patient
      • Sending prescription requests to clinician and/or pharmacy
      • Accessing education material for the patient/caregiver based on their diagnosis and medical condition
      • Scheduling e-visits and attending a clinical visit virtually
      • Integrating the portal with an electronic medical record (EMR) so the patient/caregiver will be able to view the health information (or an appropriate subset) as captured in the EMR
  1. Information Display:

Even with all of the aforementioned features, the devil is in the details and it’s of the utmost importance to deliver and display the information in a way which is most intelligible and actionable to patients and caregivers. For example, think an Excel spreadsheet (with column upon column of data in a never-ending, scrolling grid) of your financial data vs. does an superb job of presenting financial data with a visual treatment that helps reinforce the messages about that data, e.g., informing you of your specific spending amounts, spending status, trends in your spending, situating your financial data vs. others in your geographical area, etc.

Example 1:

Budgets November


Example 2:

Another inspiring and outstanding resource is Thomas Goetz’s TED talk about reimaging how information is delivered in healthcare. Here is a brief snippet of lab results reimagined by Thomas and the Wired team:

Lab Tests


Your Test Results




  1. Use Appropriate Language; Change Copy for Advanced Readers:

Typical guidelines for writing digital copy are to use simple language, familiar words and short sentences. To reach a broad audience, most suggest writing at a 5th to 7th grade reading level, and while that is sound advice, it’s also important to recognize situations where copy can be altered to accommodate a more advanced reading audience.

Certainly no one wants to struggle to read the content within a portal. However, for patients who might be long term chronic condition sufferers or even patients with multiple chronic conditions, more complex terminology can likely be included. Specialized language can be more concise and clearer as long as the reader is a specialist who understands the terminology.

The design along how and what information is presented can have a big impact on making patient portals much more user-friendly and useful.

Anticipate Obstacles to Adoption

Even with the best designed and user-friendly portal, there are obstacles to plan for in order to gain greater adoption and engagement. For example:

  • Varying levels of comfort with technology—Simply speaking, some patients/caregivers aren’t comfortable logging into a site to get information on their health. Consider having a staff member walk them through logging into their Patient Portal at least once in order to help adoption.
  • Varying access to technology—Depending on the population your organization serves, there may be limited access to a computer with Internet access. For some patients, optimizing the Patient Portal for a mobile experience will be the best consideration and, for some, it isn’t realistic to expect that they will use the portal.
  • Actively highlight the advantages for a patient/caregiver logging into their Patient Portal— For example, highlight how patients can send a secure message to their doctor or nurse and get a response and how they can double-check what their blood pressure targets are, access their lab results, etc.
  • Acknowledge that most systems don’t do a good job of consolidating or considering patients who are struggling with multiple conditions—For the most part, those patients are expected to log in to multiple disparate Patient Portals. We have to do better on this front!

Optimal Outcomes for Patient Portals

The goal is to enhance usability in order to deliver an engaging and useful experience for patients. The benefits of doing this are many, including:

  • Enhance patient care
  • Provide convenient online services to patients/caregivers
  • Remove barriers for patients and allowing them to take a more active role in their health care
  • Provide a secure means of communication between the patient and the clinician
  • Allow patients/caregivers to compose questions thoughtfully and confidentially, without the stress of a time-limited in person visit
  • Support staying healthy or living well with a chronic condition
  • Make caring for a family member easier

Join in with your insights. Given your experience with a patient portal, what is working well? What is working less well? If you haven’t used a patient portal yet, let us know why and what might change your mind.


I am a healthcare IT consultant and have worked solely in healthcare IT for the past thirteen years; I’m currently focused on emerging technologies including social media. I am especially interested in a more integrated and seamless experiences for all participants in the healthcare lifecycle. I participate in the HIMSS Social Media Task Force, the HIMSS Patient Literacy Task Force and the HIMSS Patient Engagement with Patient-Centered Care Teams Task Force, and can be found, followed, and (if necessary) fussed at on Twitter@janicejacobs44.

Additional Reading:

Patient carehealthcarepatient portals