The Good News About Patient Portals …

Posted on January 14, 2014 I Written By

James Ritchie is a freelance writer with a focus on health care. His experience includes eight years as a staff writer with the Cincinnati Business Courier, part of the American City Business Journals network. Twitter @HCwriterJames.

I recently wrote that it’s not clear whether patient portals do much to improve health care.

Now a new study suggests they help in at least one area: medication adherence.

The research involved diabetic patients who were using cholesterol-lowering statin drugs and had registered for online portal access. Among those who started using the system’s online refill function as their only method of getting the medication, “nonadherence” dropped 6 percent.

LDL or “bad” cholesterol also decreased.

The researchers concluded that “wider adoption of online refills may improve adherence.” No decline in nonadherence was seen in patients who didn’t use the online refill function.

The Kaiser Permanente study was published in the journal Medical Care.

The study included plenty of subjects — 8,705 people who used online refills and 9,055 who didn’t. But if there’s a cause-effect relationship at work in this study, you have to wonder in which direction it might run. Might the people who tend to take their medicine as prescribed be more likely to sign up for online refills in the first place?

Still, the study is an intriguing hint that patient portals might be worth at least some of the attention they’re getting. Nonadherence to medication regimens is a huge issue for health care because of both the human toll it takes and the inefficiency it fosters in the system.

Typical nonadherence rates are in the 30-60 percent range, depending on the condition, the medication and other factors, according to Medscape. It’s especially easy to slack off when symptoms disappear.

The study builds on another piece of good news for health IT. Researchers recently found that EMRs can make diabetes care better by rendering care coordination more efficient, as Katherine Rourke wrote here at EMR and HIPAA.

Portals are, of course, experiencing tremendous popularity because they help health care providers to meet Meaningful Use Stage 2 patient-engagement requirements. But, as I wrote earlier, in a review of 46 studies related to portals, researchers didn’t find evidence for much in the way of patient benefits.

Physicians have a major job ahead of them if they’re to make full use of patient portals and receive the available federal incentives. Perhaps this study, modest as its results are, suggests that their efforts will have some benefit for the patients they serve.