Is your practice ready for a patient portal?

March 24, 2022
Quick Summary:
When properly used by both the practice and its patients, a portal offers several potential benefits, including increased front-desk efficiency, improved patient communication, reduction of paper waste and mailing costs, ease of HIPAA compliance and additional security. Learn more about these benefits and what to take into consideration when shopping for a portal to ensure you choose one that your patients and staff will use.

In an increasingly digitized society, opening an online patient portal is a service many dental practices are currently contemplating or implementing. 

Instead of viewing patient portal software as a new, bright and shiny tool to add to your practice, take steps to make sure that a portal is right for you, your staff and your patients. 

Start with a clear understanding of what a patient portal is, how it functions and what it can and can’t do. Simply put, a patient portal is a website that allows patients access to their data. Portal features can vary greatly depending on the vendor. At a minimum, patients can use portals to view contact information and dental history. Some portals incorporate a combination of additional features like appointment scheduling, secure messaging and bill payment.

When properly used by both the practice and its patients, a portal offers a number of potential benefits.

  • Increased front desk efficiency. Staff spend less time trying to reach patients for appointments, billing and verification of dental benefits. This is especially impactful with current staffing shortages.
  • Improved patient communication. Patients can send messages directly to the dental practice at any time, including outside of business hours, thus reducing the chances of miscommunication and alerting the dentist of possible emergency appointments needed for the day before the office opens for business. Nonemergency requests can also be handled through the portal, such as records requests, refills and appointment verification or changes.
  • Reduction of paper waste and mailing costs. Streamline, save paper and get organized by allowing billing and records to be securely accessed electronically.
  • Ease of HIPAA compliance. Keep pace with new laws regarding patient access to their information.
  • Additional security. With an encrypted system for messaging and billing, you can reduce the risks associated with taking payment information over the phone or sending records via email. 

The best patient portal system is one that your patients and staff will actually use. Before shopping for portal software, review your patient base trends and determine if their willing use of online tools is realistic. For instance, if you have a low number of responses to texted appointment reminders or many patients who prefer paper billing, your demographic may not transition easily to portal use. By law, portal use is optional, so you will still need to provide services to patients who do not want to use a virtual system.

In the same vein, consider the willingness of your staff to adopt new tools and adapt to their use. Employees who feel burdened by the learning curve of new software or are concerned a portal system will replace their personal touch may be resistant to implementing a patient portal. It is wise to involve staff and seek their input when considering portal use.

If you decide that a patient portal system would benefit your patients and practice, pause to think of the problems that you want the portal to solve. Survey both your staff and patients to determine what pain points could potentially be relieved.

  • Ask your staff about the challenges they are experiencing with patient care and communication.
  • Ask your patients what services they would be willing to use if you did offer a portal. Do they want to be able to check in via smartphone, complete forms and health history, verify benefits or pay bills online?

Your existing practice management systems should also be evaluated when looking at potential patient portals. Contact your practice management software company to find out if it offers a patient portal solution. If it does, determine if the features align with the services you would like to offer. 

If your practice management software company does not offer an integrated portal option, ask which patient portals the company recommends that will be compatible to their software system. You don’t want to invest time and money on patient portal software only to find out later it doesn’t work well with your existing practice management system.

One final and very important consideration that should be made before implementing a patient portal is your practice’s cyber security systems. Dental practices and other health care entities are at increased risk for cyberattack due to their storage of patient records and billing information. A patient portal can reduce some of the risk of attack via phishing schemes and malware by reducing email communication, but a portal is also a potential target. Care should be taken to select portal software that places a high priority on security, patient privacy and adherence to HIPAA.

CDA members who are policyholders with The Dentists Insurance Company can add an extra layer of protection. TDIC Business Owner’s policyholders can apply to add Cyber Suite Liability coverage, which offers tools for responding to and recovering from a broad range of cyber incidents such as breach of information, unauthorized intrusion or interference with computer systems, damage to data and systems from computer attacks and related litigation. If you already have a cyber policy, talk to your insurance agent prior to launching a patient portal to review the specifics of your coverage. Find additional guidance on protecting practice systems in a recent article by TDIC.

CDA’s expert analysts know dentistry and are here to guide you through the support your practice needs, including updates and changes to services like a patient portal. CDA has created a Patient Portal Implementation Checklist you can use to evaluate your practice’s need for a patient portal and valuable features to consider before implementation. Ensure you investment in a new portal will be worthwhile by carefully considering the needs of your unique practice, staff and patient base.


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