Patient portal or #patientportal?

Patient portals are primed for a breakout, with Meaningful Use playing no small role, but as they go from a buzzword at health IT conferences to ubiquitous tools familiar to all patients, there’s a question of what a portal should actually look like. At the Patient Portal for New Yorkers Design Challenge, presented by the New York eHealth Collaborative (NYeC), a major discussion, possibly playing out along generational lines, is how much a portal should resemble social media.

NYeC’s design challenge, which offers $15,000 to the development team that can create the top portal prototype as determined by public voting and a panel of judges, held the first of two public showcases in New York City on April 30. Nine finalists, who were determined by the public voting phase, demonstrated their creations in front of a room of providers, hospital administrators, IT professionals and patients.

If you walked in from the street unaware of the topic of the day, you’d be forgiven if you thought the challenge was to create a rival for Facebook. Some of the designs featured various social media-esque characteristics, such as large profile pics, customizable dashboards, and widgets that can be connected with apps like Nike+. The team from iHealthNY, who said they wanted their portal to be “sexy,” incorporated an interactive Google map of providers who had access to the user’s information so that patients could visualize their connections.

It seemed designs tended to differ based on the age of presenters. Older teams had pages that looked more like traditional webpages packed with information on the page, while the younger teams, with that Silicon Valley-casual sports jacket and jeans look, gravitated toward social media inspired portals with animated menus and minimalist design.

It’s unclear how many of these features might be used. An email messaging system within the portal seems like a nice addition, but it also becomes another inbox for patients to check (at least one portal, from ChARM EHR, allowed message notifications to be automatically forwarded to external email addresses, which is a thoughtful touch). One of the judges questioned how often patients would log onto the portal in the first place, thus making some of the bells and whistles unnecessary, and another judge questioned the need for prominent profile pictures staring back at you when you logged on.

That said, maybe thinking of patient portals as sterile repositories of chart data is outdated thinking and patients would log in regularly if a portal was attractive enough. Tapping into the gamification trend, ChARM EHR’s portal offers a point-based reward system for doing certain tasks on the portal, and ClarityHealthJournal offers a diabetes logbook that patients could update to help track diet and blood glucose levels.

Aside from the social media influence, the word of the day was clearly “simple.” While each portal had its own distinctive look and feel, every presenter emphasized the simplicity of managing health information through a portal, whether that meant easy consent management, or clean user interfaces. Mana Health’s presentation touted that all information could be accessed in no more than two clicks. All of the portals incorporated links to vetted information resources, and some offered one-click pronunciation guides for medication names that might normally leave a patient tongue-tied.

Each portal showed a unique take on how patients can access health information and all offered many interesting features. Take a look at video summaries from the nine development teams at the Patient Portal for New Yorkers website.

The second round of finalist demonstrations will take place May 2, in Buffalo, N.Y.