Study: Online portals fall short on offering context, explanations for test results

laptop computer on a table
Patients often do online searches to understand test results posted in portals, according to a new study.

Patients can, and often do, access test results and other healthcare information through online portals, but more work could be done to help them understand what the results mean, according to a new study. 

Researchers interviewed 95 patients who had accessed test results through a patient portal between April 2015 and September 2016, according to data published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. Close to two-thirds (63%) of those interviewed did not receive any additional explanation on the results through the portal. 

Nearly half (46%) then looked online for interpretation of the test results, and 51% discussed the results with friends and family instead of physicians. Patients who were not given an explanation about their test results were more likely to be upset—sometimes even if the results were normal or positive—and more likely to call their physicians for more information. 

Fifty-six percent said they had a negative reaction to their test results due to lack of explanation, compared to 21% of those who had a negative reaction with adequate explanation. 

"Our findings suggest that current patient portals are not designed to present information on test results in a meaningful way," the researchers wrote. "While providing patients with access to their test results via portals is a good start, it is insufficient by itself to meet their needs." 

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Patient portals are viewed by clinicians as one of the most useful patient engagement tools, and at some practices an increased use of portals has coincided with decreased appointment wait times. 

But, the researchers said that the results show how portals can continue to evolve and support patients. Providing clear interpretation of test results for patients should be a best practice, and as patients may search for additional information on results even if an explanation is provided, portals can be designed to steer them to reputable online sources. 

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Online portals could also be more personalized to provide context that's geared toward a patient's specific conditions and health concerns, the researchers recommend. Certain test results, particularly if they're sensitive in nature, may also require providers to offer additional support services. 

The study also notes that some patients may not take the time to access their healthcare information online at all. A report from the Government Accountability Office found that just 15% of patients access hospital records online, though 88% of hospitals offer access. 

Patients told GAO that the key frustration was the amount of time it takes to set up accounts and log in. 

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