Patient Portal: The Good & the Bad

In my previous blog “Waiting for Test Results” I shared a conversation from the early 2000’s that I had with a receptionist at the cancer center about responding to inquiries for test results. In those days there were no patient portals so patients and loved ones often agonized over having to wait for a call or office visit to learn results of a biopsy or scan. Now, with access to results available electronically, you would think that technology has eased the anxiety associated with waiting. The good news about patient portals is getting results faster but the bad news is the challenge of reading a report that features unfamiliar medical terminology, a foreign language that most of us barely understand.

Small towns increase the chances of bumping into patients I’d known during my time as a medical humanist at the cancer center in Bennington. Recently, I was shopping at the local supermarket when a patient recognized me. I stopped and asked how she was doing. While offering an update on her health, she suddenly blurted out, “I hate the patient portal.”  She went on to say that she knows how to use a computer and navigate websites but finds the online reports barely intelligible.

Sounding exasperated she went on to say, “I don’t know what the medical jargon means. I guess I could look it up on the internet but I’d rather call the doctor’s office to speak with someone. I’ve been a cancer patient and I need to understand what the test results mean.”

Supermarkets have narrow aisles and a woman nearby overheard our conversation. She interjected, “Sorry to interrupt but I happen to like the portal for things like making appointments and refilling medications but I need to talk with a nurse or doctor about stuff that’s more complicated.” We both looked at her with an acknowledging smile.

I have come to appreciate that some of us are comfortable with a patient portal and don’t mind the extra work visiting other websites in order to clarify medical terminology. Others may not be computer savvy or just not like to rely on electronic tools for health information. No matter what method we prefer, it’s most important to ask questions and be sure that you understand the answers. I’d also suggest you tell healthcare providers your preferred method of receiving healthcare information.

I think it’s fair to say that doctors, nurses and receptionists can still expect to be asked when test results will be ready. I can only hope that when the information is not yet available, the person taking the call remembers to say, “not soon enough.”

One Comment

  1. I totally agree that patient portals are good for appointments & refills but nothing more sensitive or complicated, whether art not one is tech-savvy. I also find that doctors often do not answer patient portal “non-urgent” medical requests. An interesting and not enough investigated issue, in my experience, is whether doctors are willing to remain or text – and if not, why not.

    Thank you, Celia, for raising this issue!

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