Background: Electronic health information (eHealth) tools for patients, including patient-accessible electronic medical records (patient portals), are proliferating in health care delivery systems nationally. However, there has been very limited study of the perceived utility and functionality of portals, as well as limited assessment of these systems by vulnerable (low education level, racial/ethnic minority) consumers.
Objective: The objective of the study was to identify vulnerable consumers’ response to patient portals, their perceived utility and value, as well as their reactions to specific portal functions.
Methods: This qualitative study used 4 focus groups with 28 low education level, English-speaking consumers in June and July 2010, in New York City.
Results: Participants included 10 males and 18 females, ranging in age from 21-63 years; 19 non-Hispanic black, 7 Hispanic, 1 non-Hispanic White and 1 Other. None of the participants had higher than a high school level education, and 13 had less than a high school education. All participants had experience with computers and 26 used the Internet. Major themes were enhanced consumer engagement/patient empowerment, extending the doctor’s visit/enhancing communication with health care providers, literacy and health literacy factors, improved prevention and health maintenance, and privacy and security concerns. Consumers were also asked to comment on a number of key portal features. Consumers were most positive about features that increased convenience, such as making appointments and refilling prescriptions. Consumers raised concerns about a number of potential barriers to usage, such as complex language, complex visual layouts, and poor usability features.
Conclusions: Most consumers were enthusiastic about patient portals and perceived that they had great utility and value. Study findings suggest that for patient portals to be effective for all consumers, portals must be designed to be easy to read, visually engaging, and have user-friendly navigation.