Online Portals Challenge WebMD as Patients’ Source for Health Info

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licensing its software to healthcare providers and insurers, Le says. More than 300,000 people have used the company’s tools since Buoy’s 2014 launch, he says. (Buoy’s early-stage competitors include two U.K.-based companies, Your.MD and Babylon Health.)

Le says he envisions integrating Buoy’s software with systems developed by Epic, Cerner, and other EHR vendors. That way, some of the information users provide about their symptoms can automatically flow into their electronic records if they decide that a trip to urgent care or a doctor’s office is merited based on Buoy’s recommendations.

An overarching goal in health IT is to bring people and their care providers closer together. Providing credible health information through online patient portals, as Mayo and Epic are attempting to do, represents one step toward that goal.

But, ultimately, the value that can come from presenting content to patients in this way may only be realized if health systems and technology companies work together to equip patients with tools that allow them to act on information after absorbing it—and maintain a dialogue with their providers.

The development and linking-together of technologies designed for patient use reflects a broader trend across the healthcare industry of engaging patients where they are, says Michael Palantoni, director of product management at Athenahealth.

For instance, nowadays many people prefer to purchase goods and services online, and Athenahealth has made it possible to pay for doctor visits through its patient portal. Palantoni says Athenahealth projects that users of the portal, known as AthenaCommunicator, will make more than $450 million worth of payments for care through the interface this year. More than 19 million patients use AthenaCommunicator, which was introduced in 2008, he says.

Palantoni says that providing reference materials to patients through online portals, which Athenahealth’s customers can configure the company’s software to do, is important but “isn’t hugely exciting” to him. When it comes to improving communication between health systems and their patients through technology, what will be really impactful is giving a voice to both sides and “creating that real-time broad network for transactions,” he says.

“I think those reference capabilities are important,” he says. “But if you can’t follow up in real time with some sort of digital transaction, then it’s essentially useless because you’re going to wait and schedule a visit anyway. It’s really the ability to coordinate care in real time, to schedule in real time, to message in real time with your provider, that we see as actually where more of the patient and provider activity are going.”

There’s plenty of buzz at the moment about the potential of digital portals and other tools developed by Athenahealth and its EHR competitors to get patients to play a more active role in their healthcare. With their promise of more personalized responses and advice, portals could become a more popular first stop when someone begins to experience symptoms.

But Google, WebMD, and other tools for finding health information that are popular today will likely remain so, says Kiray, who describes them as “complementary” to patient portals.

“I don’t think the portal has necessarily decreased patients getting information from the Internet,” he says.

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