Researchers: Portal communications fail to limit phone call volume

computer and stethoscope

Implementation of patient portal communications did not reduce the volume of phone calls that clinic staff fielded, according to researchers from Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, the researchers expected that providing portal access to patients would lessen the workload on clinic staff. To that end, they compared portal adoption rates and the number of telephone calls over time at four clinics between February and June of 2014.

Despite increased adoption rates at all four clinics, call volume increased at two of the clinics--a commercial, community-based health center; and a university-based health center. Still, call volume remained steady at the other two clinics--a rural health center and a federally qualified health center.

The study's authors hypothesized that a longer adjustment period might be required to see reduced workload on staff, and there might be additional benefits, such as increased satisfaction and other health improvements.

They also noted some limitations of the study. For instance, all four clinics were implementing a patient-centered medical home model, including care coordination and quality improvement initiatives for chronic illnesses, routine screenings and vaccinations. Patients, especially those without portal accounts, might have been calling to schedule appointments in response to reminders sent to them.

The portal had an online scheduling feature for the two clinics in which calls increased, but not for the other two. Patients might have found phoning for an appointment more efficient, suggesting other methods might be required to transition appointment-setting to the portal, the researchers said.