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Navigating Your Patient Portal: A Guide to the Pros and Pitfalls

The online platform can help you take control of your health. Here’s what to keep in mind when you log in


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Gone are the days when physicians carted around big binders stuffed with messy, handwritten notes from clinic to clinic. Most everything is electronic these days — and not just for health care providers. With one click of a button, patients can log into a portal and view their medical records or message their doctor directly.

These online platforms are becoming increasingly popular among older adults. A 2023 report from the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Healthy Aging, supported by AARP, found that more than 3 in 4 adults ages 50 to 80 (78 percent) have used a patient portal, up from 51 percent in a poll taken five years ago. Nearly half of those with a patient portal have used more than one.

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Patient portal pros

Patient portals come with many pros. For instance, they can help patients stay engaged in their health care, the authors on the University of Michigan poll note. And keeping patients in the loop when it comes to their health “is important for patient safety,” says Andrea Bradford, a clinical psychologist at Baylor College of Medicine who specializes in health services delivery.

A study published in 2022 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found several benefits of portal use for patients with chronic health conditions. Medication adherence improved, for example, and patients were more likely to use recommended care services.

What are the downsides?

But there are a few cons as well, one being when patients see test results before their doctor has a chance to review them. An estimated 80 percent of patient portal users between ages 50 and 80 rely on the portal for accessing their test results, the National Poll on Healthy Aging found.

One click on the automatic email letting you know your results are in, and “patients may misinterpret the test results and either become unnecessarily worried, or think that results are normal when in fact they are not,” says Dean Sittig, who specializes in patient safety and electronic medical records at the D. Bradley McWilliams School of Biomedical Informatics at UTHealth Houston.

That’s what happened to David Pearlman, a retired educator from Cooperstown, New York. After a prostate procedure in June, Pearlman logged into his portal and saw that his PSA, a test that can detect prostate cancer, was much higher than in previous years. “I did not hear back from my doctor until later in the day and was quite worried while I waited,” recalls Pearlman, whose PSA levels have since dropped. 

In a 2017 study, about 37 percent of patients who viewed their test results on a patient portal reported feeling concerned, confused, anxious, scared or frustrated.

While you wait for word from your health care provider, it’s important to remember that your test results are often sent to your doctor at the same time they are sent to you, so you need to allow time for your physician to review the results and reach out. Complicating matters is the shortage of health care providers and administrative staff, especially those who work in primary care.

“A lot of our offices are working short staffed by 15 to 25 percent, depending on the position,” Kevin Hopkins, a family physician and primary care medical director for Cleveland Clinic Community Care, said in a 2022 interview with the American Medical Association. “So, recognize that it may take us a little longer than usual to respond to your inquiry.”

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If you know that you’re prone to worry or anxiety over test results, wait a day or two for the doctor to call. Medical offices typically have good systems for review and triage of messages and work hard to get back to you within 24 to 48 hours.

That said, if your doctor told you that your test result might be time-sensitive and you have not heard back the same day, you may want to send in a message with a “high priority” notation.

What about security? Sittig warns that “someone could steal your login credentials and view your private health information.” To help avoid this, he recommends taking “the same precautions as you would be taking with your banking information.” Setting up two-factor authentications (password and text message confirmation) is one way to give yourself protection. To avoid falling victim to a phishing scam, be careful of emails from people or organizations that you do not know or whose names are spelled incorrectly, Sittig says.  

Patient portal best practices

So now you know: Don’t spend your time trying to interpret your test results on the patient portal. Instead, use the platform for these five features.

  • Making appointments.
  • Updating your medication list.
  • Determining what vaccines and routine tests are due.
  • Sharing medical notes with a family member or caregiver.
  • Communicating with your doctor or health care team.
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One note on that last point, however: If you send a message to your doctor in the patient portal, just know that it could cost you — some offices are charging for portal messaging, and others may do so in the future.

The reason being, physicians today receive 57 percent more patient portal messages than they did before the pandemic, according to the American Medical Association — and answering all these requests and questions takes time.

In response to the increased workload, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees Medicare, expanded billing options and reimbursement for patient portal messages that require more than five minutes of clinician time. Similarly, many institutions such as Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins are charging for responses that require medical expertise and more time by the doctor.

How do you know if you’ll be charged for your portal messages? You’ll see a note in the messaging center that you may be billed for the doctor’s time. Medicare and private insurers generally cover these charges, although some patients could be on the hook for out-of-pocket expenses.

If you do need to send a message to your doctor in the portal, keep it on the short side — think text-message length. If your message can be answered by someone other than a doctor — for example, if you are confirming appointment logistics or the correct dose of a medication — another member of the care team may respond.

Finally, if your issue is urgent, skip the portal and call the office.

Test results: What are you looking at?

If you’re logging in and see results from medical tests — be it blood, imaging or others — chances are you’ll also see a lot of confusing medical jargon. It is important to have your doctor review and interpret what the results mean for you. Here’s some information for when you see results in your portal.

Lab tests are generally from samples of blood. Some tests have a “positive or negative” result, indicating whether you have a disease. (One example is an antibody test for Lyme disease.) Other tests measure levels of substances in your blood, such as potassium or iron. These lab results include a reference range of what would be normal. Some ranges are wide; others are narrow, where even a slight change can signal an abnormality.

Imaging test reports have a format that includes the reason the test was ordered, what is found on the test, and a summary, or impression. Note that the doctor making the interpretation will include lots of information — think of someone showing you a car and asking you to describe it in detail. You would note every dent, scratch and crack, although these findings may not reflect how well the car is running. The impression section may say normal or unremarkable. Or it could state that a finding is of concern or that more testing is recommended.

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