Through the Portal: Older Adults’ Experiences Using Patient Portals

Patient portals are convenient tools to help patients manage their electronic medical records. A new study investigated how older adults fare in using this technology.

For this study, 272 adults age 50 and better (average age 70) completed an online survey about their internet use, eHealth literacy, and experiences using patient portals. Although most participants learned of the study from a technology education website for older adults, about 20% were recruited through flyers posted in community centers and senior living communities.

Overall, participants were familiar with using technology; most reported being competent in their level of computer knowledge (78%) and had a smartphone (77%). Seventy-one percent of participants had at least one patient portal account, and many had two or more. The portal users were generally knowledgeable about patient portals, scoring 6.6 out of 8 on average. However, self-efficacy for using portals was not high (28.8 out of 40), and many participants reported usability issues. Non-users scored lower on both measures—4.2 on knowledge and 22.7 on self-efficacy. This suggests there is much room for improvement in patient portal design and training. In fact, about one quarter of participants received no training on how to use the portal, while the rest received information from the internet or printed materials. One of the most frequent comments participants made was about how training was not provided or was inadequate.

Apart from low usability, a common frustration for those with several patient portal accounts was the need to remember account information and which of their doctors belonged to each portal. As an indication of how many different programs exist, 38 different brands were reported, just in this sample. To address this, some participants called for a single, easy-to-use portal.

Despite these concerns, users did appreciate the convenience of patient portals; access to one’s own medical records and ease of communication with a doctor or nurse were the most valued features. While new technologies such as portals are giving patients greater access to their health information and better tools to manage their health, there is still a long way to go in design and usability.


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Nahm E-S, Zhu S, Bellantoni M, Keldsen L, Charters K, Russomanno V, Rietschel M, Son HJ, and Smith L. Patient portal use among older adults: What is really happening nationwide? Journal of Applied Gerontology (2020); 39(4): 442-450.


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