The Rules of Engagement: Perspectives on Secure Messaging From Experienced Ambulatory Patient Portal Users.

Sieck CJ, Hefner JL, Schnierle J, Florian H, Agarwal A, Rundell K, McAlearney AS
JMIR Med Inform 5 e13 07/04/2017

Abstract

BACKGROUND: Patient portals have shown promise in engaging individuals in self-management of chronic conditions by allowing patients to input and track health information and exchange secure electronic messages with their providers. Past studies have identified patient barriers to portal use including usability issues, low health literacy, and concerns about loss of personal contact as well as provider concerns such as increased time spent responding to messages. However, to date, studies of both patient and provider perspectives on portal use have focused on the pre-implementation or initial implementation phases and do not consider how these issues may change as patients and providers gain greater experience with portals.

OBJECTIVE: Our study examined the following research question: Within primary care offices with high rates of patient-portal use, what do experienced physician and patient users of the ambulatory portal perceive as the benefits and challenges of portal use in general and secure messaging in particular?

METHODS: This qualitative study involved 42 interviews with experienced physician and patient users of an ambulatory patient portal, Epic's MyChart. Participants were recruited from the Department of Family Medicine at a large Academic Medical Center (AMC) and included providers and their patients, who had been diagnosed with at least one chronic condition. A total of 29 patients and 13 primary care physicians participated in the interviews. All interviews were conducted by telephone and followed a semistructured interview guide. Interviews were transcribed verbatim to permit rigorous qualitative analysis. Both inductive and deductive methods were used to code and analyze the data iteratively, paying particular attention to themes involving secure messaging.

RESULTS: Experienced portal users discussed several emergent themes related to a need for greater clarity on when and how to use the secure messaging feature. Patient concerns included worry about imposing on their physician's time, the lack of provider compensation for responding to secure messages, and uncertainty about when to use secure messaging to communicate with their providers. Similarly, providers articulated a lack of clarity as to the appropriate way to communicate via MyChart and suggested that additional training for both patients and providers might be important. Patient training could include orienting patients to the "rules of engagement" at portal sign-up, either in the office or through an online tutorial.

CONCLUSIONS: As secure messaging through patient portals is increasingly being used as a method of physician-patient communication, both patients and providers are looking for guidance on how to appropriately engage with each other using this tool. Patients worry about whether their use is appropriate, and providers are concerned about the content of messages, which allow them to effectively manage patient questions. Our findings suggest that additional training may help address the concerns of both patients and providers, by providing "rules of engagement" for communication via patient portals.

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