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Patient portals benefit practices and patients in multiple ways. They increase patient engagement, improve inter-office communication, produce better healthcare outcomes, and support “Meaningful Use” CMS Medicare and Medicaid programs. 

But there’s one thing a patient portal probably won’t do — decrease the amount of incoming calls to a healthcare practice.

While it may seem like adding a new way for patients to connect with providers would lessen the number of phone calls made to the practice, a new study found that is not the case.


The “Patient-Provider Communication” Study

Researchers at Oregon Health & Science University recently published a study in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine that highlights a major misconception about patient portals.

The study, “Patient–Provider Communication: Does Electronic Messaging Reduce Incoming Telephone Calls?” aimed to find out if the implementation of internet-based patient portals would alleviate clinical workload.

Researchers hypothesized that “an increase in the use of electronic patient-to-provider messaging would be significantly correlated with a decrease in incoming patient phone calls.” They sampled four economically diverse primary care practices in Oregon to see how the introduction of patient portals impacted their volume of incoming calls.

Their hypothesis did not match their findings.

After implementing a patient-to-provider electronic portal:

  • Two of the practices saw an increase in patient telephone calls
  • Two of the practices showed not even a slight decrease in patient telephone calls

The early assumption that patient portals would reduce phone call volume proved to be wrong. Digital portals did not decrease clinic workload as it related to managing phone calls.

There are benefits to using digital portals, such as an increase in patient engagement, but the study found that immediately decreasing the number of incoming phone calls is not one of them.


So, what does this mean for your healthcare facility?

Study Takeaways

We can learn a few lessons from the “Patient-Provider Communication” study.

  1. Properly set your team’s expectations.

Having an online scheduler does not necessarily mean that patients are going to use it. So, as your office adopts patient portals and electronic records systems, set expectations early on. Know that the implementation of digital portals won’t reduce your need for human resources.  

Managers need to understand that human resources dedicated to patient-provider communication are still needed. And, the staff needs to know that they will still be managing the similar amount of work.

  1. Continue to focus on the calling experience.

Even as digital platforms provide more and more ways to connect with patients, the calling experience still matters. The “Patient-Provider Communication” study proved this, and Spectrio also published nine other stats that back up this idea.

Don’t neglect or devalue the importance of providing exceptional experiences. Continue to develop your on-hold messaging strategy so you can quickly and efficiently serve patients who call your practice.

  1. Remember that digital portals are an addition, not a replacement.

Resources for digital-first touch points like EHR portals and websites should be in addition to patient experience investments in the physical office and on the clinic phones. They will should not aim to replace current systems you already have.

As you implement patient portals, remember that it is about “and” not “or.” You are not choosing one system or the other. You are expanding the access and resources available to your patients. So, continue to focus on other customer connection initiatives in addition to digital patient portals.

This “Patient-Provider Communication” shows that original ideas about how people through digital patient portals would impact practices aren’t accurate.

While digital patient portals are important and useful, they don’t help in all of the ways researchers originally thought. Even with them, practices must still focus on the phone as a major connection touchpoint with their patients.

Now that you have seen how important it is to continue to provide exceptional calling experiences, is it time to assess your current calling situation? See how your telephone touch points are performing and what errors you could be making by reviewing these 11 Frustrating Hold Message Mistakes.