- Patient engagement with electronic health information through online medical records or patient portals spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, but racial and ethnic disparities persisted, according to a new study published in JAMA Health Forum.
- The research found a 46% increase in the share of people who recently accessed their patient portals between 2020 and 2022, compared with only a 5% bump in 2019 through 2020.
- However, only 60% of Black patients and 57% of Hispanic individuals accessed a patient portal in 2022, compared with 70% of White patients. The study noted there weren’t significant differences in usage between groups when patients were offered a portal and encouraged to use it, suggesting that a push to promote equitable access could increase patient use.
Access to electronic health information through online patient portals has been steadily rising for several years after regulators rolled out new rules to push the healthcare industry to enable access to electronic health information and prohibit blocking the free flow of data, the study noted.
Though the Office of the National Coordinator finalized data sharing rules in 2020, enforcement has taken several years to iron out.
This summer, the Biden administration finalized penalties for health IT companies who block health information sharing, and the HHS recently proposed new regulations that would cut Medicare payments to information-blocking providers.
Implementation of these regulations could be one reason for the boost in patient portal use, but the pandemic may have also forced change, researchers said. Increased reliance on telehealth during the pandemic meant patients had to access portals to send messages, review tests results or download or transmit information.
The JAMA study, which included more than 22,000 people, suggests providers have also become more aware of the benefits of providing patients access to their electronic health information.
The research noted a 24% increase in the share of individuals who reported being offered access to a portal by their provider in 2020 through 2022, and a 34% rise in the share who reported being encouraged to use it by their clinician.
Providers are a key element when it comes to increasing access to patient portals, the study found.
“Rates of patient portal access were substantially higher among those who were offered a portal (81%) and encouraged to use it (83%) compared with the national average (68%),” the study noted.
Racial and ethnic disparities could be related to a lack of opportunity to access portals, like not being offered credentials or receiving care from providers that didn’t offer portals, or not hearing the benefits of access, according to the study.
In 2022, 73% of Black individuals and 62% of Hispanic patients reported being offered online access to their records by their provider, compared with 81% of White patients. And fewer than two-thirds of Black and Hispanic people said they were encouraged by providers to use the portal compared with 77% of White individuals.