Stop studying patient engagement and do something with the information

December appears to be the month of the patient portal study.

First we have a survey from the National Partnership for Women and Families, which found that consumers are increasingly more comfortable with electronic health records and online access, but that patient engagement should be increased. Usage varied by demographic.

Then there's the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' study of its MyHealtheVet portal, which found that while more than 1 million veterans had registered for the online access, patient registration and use was low. Usage varied by medical condition.

Now, there's Xerox's annual survey, which revealed that while consumers are warming up to portals, many don't know whether they have one available to them. Usage varied by age.

Anyone detecting a pattern here?

While patient engagement is one of the big buzzwords in Stage 2 of Meaningful Use (and of healthcare in general), the results of the studies corroborate each other, and they're hardly controversial.

It's sort of like the surveys of a couple of years ago where studies seemed to focus on whether EHRs--storing and harnessing large amounts of data--helped in conducting research. Not surprisingly, they did.

It's no different here with online access and patient portals. It's really a no-brainer that patients, being offered a new online tool, will warm up to the idea of using it, but only as they get used to the concept, are offered the opportunity and know about it.

Take a look at the VA study. Less than one-fifth (18.64 percent) of veterans who had certain inpatient or outpatient services had registered for the patient portal; even smaller percentages actually accessed it.

But the study uses data from 2010 through 2012. That's a long time ago. A study using 2014 data showed that one-third of veterans were accessing MyHealtheVet. Nowhere does it say why there's been an uptick, but I'd venture that more veterans are now aware of the portal and are more used to technology than they were four years ago.

The real issue is to take this information, fine tune this online access and make it truly useful. How can providers entice more patients to use the portals not simply so that the providers meet the Meaningful Use objectives, but so patients take better care of their health? Which kinds of tools are the most helpful for different kinds of patients, and can the portal be tailored to meet the needs of that patient population? How does the VA get the patients with congestive heart failure to access the portal the way the patients with HIV do?  What's the most effective way to tell patients that this nifty tool is waiting for them to use?

Patients appear to be moving in the direction of engagement. It just seems that change is slow, and they need a little hand holding. The key is to figure out the best way how. - Marla (@MarlaHirsch and @FierceHealthIT)