Some behavioral healthcare practices have begun advancing their patient portal and mobile app offerings.

Native telehealth integration was a rarity in patient portals not too long ago. But it has become more common since the COVID-19 pandemic – and this trend is likely to continue.

After telehealth appointments, patient portals can grant access to information about self-care and healthy habits between appointments, and also can be a vehicle for reporting patient health indicators over time. Patients with access to these materials may be more likely to fully engage with their treatment plans.

We spoke with Ram Krishnan, CEO of Valant, a vendor of electronic health records systems for mental health practices, to discuss why he believes it is important for behavioral healthcare practices to embrace patient portals, what practices should know before implementing a patient portal, why telehealth integration is so important to behavioral healthcare practice portals and apps, and what portals and apps should be between appointments.

Q. Why is it important for behavioral healthcare practices to embrace patient portals?

A. Primary care and other healthcare specialties tend to have episodic patient encounters. We see our primary care providers once per year for a check-up and maybe one other time because we’re sick. This tends to make the relationship transactional.

Consequently, patient portals are built around that transactional nature. They are more about appointments and payment management than anything else.

Behavioral health – requiring frequent, ongoing care, and being far more relationship-driven – is poorly served by the transactional nature of generic EHR software design. Practices have needed technology that understands this requirement and is purpose-built for the more frequent and relationship-driven nature of behavioral healthcare.

This does present an opportunity, however, as time has created both new service models and a deeper understanding of the needs of behavioral health. We know practices are continually looking for ways to enhance the patient experience to improve the wellbeing of their patients and to ensure adherence to treatment plans or medication.

Patient portals should be more than a place to make a payment but should act as a digital extension of the care itself. Portals should serve as a connector between practice and provider while keeping patients engaged with their treatment plans.

They can be a place where patients can check in with their providers through secure messaging, particularly for managing medications. Portals can be the place where they complete periodic mental health assessments and check in on their progress. When purpose-built, portals can help practices build long-term relationships with their patients, offering an added and necessary touchpoint for care.

Even better is that while the connection to care improves, operational improvements can also be felt in parallel. Implementing a user-friendly, secure and purpose-built patient portal can make it easy for patients to handle paperwork and bills, and join telehealth sessions.

Portals also can reduce clerical errors and no-show appointments and minimize the need for manual paperwork and phone calls.

Q. What should behavioral health practices know before implementing a patient portal?

A. Studies show patients want user-friendly, personalized patient portals with easy-to-use communication features, which benefits both patients and clinicians. So, while there is a short learning curve for introducing patients to a new portal, it will ultimately offer an invaluable tool, while reducing a great deal of administrative work.

Patients and staff might need assistance in the early days of launching a portal, but practices will find that when compared with the manual means of collecting payment, assessments and other documents, this due diligence will be worth it in the end.

In addition to the many ways that clinicians can engage with their patients through the portal, patients also can handle tasks that once needed staff assistance, like appointment requests, payments and paperwork. All of this can be completed through their portal account.

Behavioral healthcare practices should consider their goals as well as the goals they set forth for their patients, and even the type of patients they serve. They should remain clear on why they’re adopting the portal and keep an eye on those results. Prioritizing a primary goal allows practices and their client base to absorb and stick with one change at a time.

Practices also can take things one step at a time and take time to understand their different workstreams. This might include new prospects practices are evaluating, the intake process, ongoing patient interaction, and future potential needs such as telehealth, secure chat and content.

Q. Why is telehealth integration important to behavioral healthcare practice portals or apps? And how do practices go about including telehealth?

A. Telehealth has emerged as an essential modality for care in the behavioral healthcare industry. Some behavioral health practices have gone 100% telehealth, while others have a mix of both telehealth and in-person patients.

When telehealth accelerated during the pandemic, from a technology standpoint, we were tasked with using available tools. But as time progressed, we realized the importance of having telehealth become a more native part of the workflow – and there were a lot of different functions and capabilities to consider.

Telehealth appointments on a calendar now need to have the telehealth link embedded. Appointment reminders should allow for a link that gets the client into the session. Assessments and forms should be easily filled out in advance from any device. Payment should be made before the session begins. Group sessions need their own management.

Now, a patient portal can become the digital extension of the practice and can facilitate the management of all these services, transitioning from a payment portal to a care portal.

Q. What about between appointments, virtual or in-person? What should behavioral healthcare practice portals or apps be?

A. In between appointments, patients can access their personal health information, message staff securely, complete their assessments and manage their appointments. Recent research has considered the patient portal to be “a compassion-oriented technology, as it may positively influence safety, disease management and patient engagement.” Thus, the patient portal is a key tool for effective patient care.

When we go through a typical therapy process, where a diagnosis is made, a treatment plan is created, and interventions are established with activities to support them, there is a clear opportunity to digitize this process. Behavioral healthcare practices still deliver PDFs or printouts. Care can and should be continuous and top of mind. That PDF doesn’t help if it is never printed out.

When the moment arises when something should be documented, the patient portal, particularly if it is app-based, can serve as that digital aide, alerting when an assignment is due, a check-in is needed, or perhaps just to document an urge or feeling that can then be dealt with.

Patient portals can centralize patient care, acting as a hub for staff, practitioners and patients. For some practices, the right patient portal may be transformative toward offering “compassion-oriented” care. At a minimum, the portal is a valuable tool for running an efficient practice and providing the optimal patient experience.

Follow Bill’s HIT coverage on LinkedIn: Bill Siwicki
Email him: bsiwicki@himss.org
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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