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Is a Web Presence Worth the Effort?

By Ed Rabinowitz
Published: Tuesday, Jan 20, 2009
Done right, the benefits of a practice portal extend beyond just dollars and cents.

Awhile back, you decided your practice needed to have a presence on the Web—a portal through which you could provide valuable information to your patients. You contracted with a website developer to launch such a site and populated it with items like the practice’s office hours, contact information, services provided, nice pictures of your building, and some biographical information on your staff. The problem, however, is that you did this five years ago, and little has been updated on the site since.



Don’t laugh; this happens more frequently than you would imagine, and many practices omit a very important ingredient from their website. “The real benefits of the Web derive from interactivity,” says Michael Uretz, executive director of the EHR Group, an information technology consulting firm. “When you develop a website, the mantra is, always give patients a reason to keep coming back.” Doing so will enable you to answer affirmatively on many fronts when pondering the question, “Is it worth it to have a practice portal?”

LAUNCHING A PORTAL

For some physicians, launching a Web portal arises out of a natural need or desire to extend the reach of their practice, and make communication and healthcare delivery more efficient and effective for both patients and physicians. For example, Katherine Gregory, MD, San Francisco Gynecology, had been e-mailing patients since she began practicing straight out of residency in 1995. The problem was that she was doing so through her AOL account, which was definitely not HIPAA-compliant.

“I had to find a Web portal that was compliant,” says Gregory, who subsequently subscribed to the Medem Group’s iHealth physician–patient online communication service. Her main goal was to preserve e-mail communication as an option for her patients, but she quickly found that other features of the service, including the online scheduling of appointments, were extremely beneficial to her working-women patient population. “They can’t play phone tag,” she notes. “They can’t break away from their day any more than I can. Communicating online is very efficient for everybody.”

For J. Allen Meadows, MD, Alabama Allergy and Asthma Clinic PC, having a practice portal was a logical and efficient way to reach current and potential patients. “It was obvious to me that the clientele of patients I was looking for—young patients who have incomes they can spend on things like allergy testing and allergy shots—would be people who used the Internet,” says Meadows, who also subscribes to Medem’s iHealth service. “And quite frankly, I have patients who said that they selected my practice over others because of the website.”

At Fort Collins, CO-based Front Range Center for Brain and Spine, the decision to sign on with Sage Software for its Intergy Practice Portal was a matter of remaining competitive and meeting patient demand for secure, efficient, electronic communication. For the past year, the practice has been utilizing the portal for patient communication but will shortly add a feature called Instant Medical History, an online questionnaire that patients can fill out prior to coming in for an appointment. The demographic information and medical history is then downloaded directly into the practice management system. Says Nancy Timmons, practice administrator for the four-physician provider, “We’re very excited, because we believe it’s going to save a lot of entry time on our side and provide real specific information from the patient.”

A DIFFERENT APPROACH

Vanderbilt University Medical Center took a different approach to the practice portal. William Stead, MD, Departments of Medicine and Biomedical Informatics, says that the traditional approach is to automate a practice, then create an EMR as a byproduct. The problems inherent in that approach, he says, are that the portal doesn’t easily accommodate information from outside the practice, and it doesn’t easily deal with the constant growth/merger/de-merger of healthcare enterprises. Instead, Vanderbilt used informatics techniques to create an EHR from existing data for every patient seen in its hospitals or outpatient clinics, and then built a physician portal on top of it.

“It took us about four months and cost less than $500,000 to create the electronic health records,” Stead says. “That contrasts with what would be a two- to four-year, $6–10 million project that no one ever finishes.”


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