“My lab results were 5.2. What does that mean?” That’s how my father started a recent phone call to me. Let me preface this by explaining that I’m an English major, and while I’ve worked in the healthcare IT field for over 10 years, I have no medical training whatsoever.

“What was the test?” I asked. My father told me.

“Never heard of it,” I said. “Let’s Google it.”

I looked up the test and found that 5.2 was right in the middle of the “normal” range. Good news.

This conversation with my father, though, brought out the project manager in me.

With the US Dept. of Health and Human Services extending compliance deadlines for implementation of parts of the 21st Century Cures Act, this allows healthcare organizations to better prepare for the sharing of health information like lab results to patients.

The most common way to facilitate access to the information is through the patient portal.

The hospital my father went to successfully implemented their patient portal. They have a patient portal that provides online access to records, and my father was able to log in and get the information he wanted. But he didn’t know what the information meant.

Had my father known about the secure messaging options available to him, he could have sent a message to his physician asking about the test results.

So how can a hospital or physician practice not only implement their patient portal and meet Meaningful Use and Cures Act requirements, but also ensure the needs of their patients are met?

The answer is to make sure you have a detailed communication plan for your patients. For hospitals, this should involve close coordination with the Marketing and Communications Department. For smaller clinics and physician offices, it may be a collaborative effort with providers and office staff.

The communication plan for a patient portal and the information available on it should include the basics that are part of any standard project communication plan: Who, What, Where, When and How.

Who is the audience? In this case, the patient, of course. (A separate communication plan should be developed for clinical and administrative staff in hospitals and physician offices).

What will be communicated? Communicating about different elements of the patient portal opens the opportunity for ongoing communications without duplicating information. Perhaps the first communication will be about the portal in general (how to get to it, logging on, an overview of features and functionality). The next might be about prescription refills, the one after that about appointment reminders, and so on. Identify the key features that should be emphasized and develop specific communications and messages for each. Each communication should include information about secure messaging.

Where will communications occur? Although this certainly ties into the “how,” there may be opportunities that are overlooked without this consideration. Certainly, hospital waiting rooms, admitting desks, patient rooms, physician offices/waiting rooms and clinic exam rooms are obvious choices, as is the public facing website. But is your hospital or clinic sponsoring an upcoming community event? What about wellness classes where handouts or brochures could be provided?

When will communications about the patient portal occur? For each of the communication methods defined above, identify a frequency and timeline. Specify the number of communications, and over what period of time. Examples might include three communications about refilling prescriptions over a one-month period, using three different communication methods. Which leads us to the “how.”

How will information about the patient portal be communicated? Make sure multiple communication methods are used. Examples include the public website, emails to patients, mailers or newsletters, posters in key areas, videos running on monitors in waiting rooms, handouts given during clinic appointments or at hospital discharge, and reminders on all types of printed communications. Provide specific examples or scenarios where patients can not only use the portal, but also use secure messaging to communicate with their providers.

Making Information Meaningful to Patients

We often tell our clients that any project, technology or otherwise, is only as successful as the end users perceive it to be. With a patient portal and secure messaging, the patients are the end users.

Hospitals and clinics that incorporate thoughtful, detailed communication plans into these implementations are likely to see greater success meeting the Cures Act and Meaningful Use requirements around actual patient usage of online access and secure messaging, while also improving patient satisfaction.