Healthcare // Patient Tools
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3/29/2011
12:23 PM
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Aetna Taps Healthline For Patient Portal

Insurers and healthcare providers are increasingly using Web portals to comply with meaningful use, give patients ready access to medical data and other relevant information.

Under the government's meaningful use guidelines, healthcare organizations must provide a patient with a copy of his or her medical data within 48 hours of their requesting it. To accomplish that, many healthcare organizations are deploying patient portals. And while they're at it, they're also building in other features, like appointment scheduling and messaging.

Health insurers have been early adopters of Web portals, providing help checking the status of claims and locating doctors in their health plans. But some insurers are taking those services further, making it easier for members to find other information, such as information on illnesses, treatment cost comparisons, and physicians in a certain zip code that care for a particular condition.

Aetna is one of the insurers doing this via its Web portal, powered by software from Healthline Networks, which recently introduced a new suite of "Medically Guided" tools that feature semantic search technology, which uses the context of terms to help locate information.

Aetna, which for years has had relationships with Harvard Medical School and Columbia University College of Dental Medicine to provide content for Aetna's site, is expanding search capabilities on its Web portal, said John Bahl, Aetna's head of digital media strategy in an interview. Rather than having to click through long lists of search results or on multiple places on a website, "we're offering one-stop shopping," for portal visitors to find medical information, Bahl said. With fewer clicks, portal visitors can more quickly and easily track down the information they're seeking, he said.

That includes advanced search services for the general public looking for information about a particular medical condition and its symptoms, but also more conveniences for Aetna members who have health coverage through the company.

Threaded searches and connections to medical taxonomy are making it easier for members to find information related to health conditions in the context of what's most relevant to them, based on their gender, age, zip code, as well as the information about other conditions in their Aetna personal health record, he said. For instance, if searching for information on migraines, portal visitors can also easily pull up a list of doctors in their region who treat the headaches.

Aetna also provides an option of presenting searched medical data in colorful "HealthMaps," which are graphical formats for members to navigate information about different aspects of a disease or condition, such as causes of and costs associated with treating migraines. The HealthMap option can be especially helpful to visual learners, Bahl said.

Aetna is adding advanced portal functionality to make it easier for members to find detailed information on their benefits, such as whether their plan covers particular medical treatments like weight loss surgery or alternative therapies that may not be covered by Aetna's plans, Bahl said. Features could be added to allow "deeper dives" about a medical condition or diagnosis and to see "more customized" information about treatments that are covered by their employers' benefits plans, he said.

These kinds of advanced Web portal features enhance member engagement, bolster self-service, and reduce calls to customer support lines while educating patients about their specific medical conditions and their various treatment options.

By the way, the features and ease-of-use of Web portals offered by insurers and especially healthcare providers will likely become a bigger competitive focus as more patients depend on these sites to keep track of their health information, rather than turning to more mainstream personal e-health record sites, such as Google Health, whose future is reportedly uncertain now that Google co-founder Larry Page is stepping back into the CEO role.

In the meantime, vendors of e-health record systems are continuing to spruce up their patient portal offerings, too.

For instance, Practice Fusion's Patient Fusion, a free Web-based e-health record system, offers doctors an interface that allows patients to view their medications, immunizations, and other health information online. That gives patients access to an assembled personal health record online, rather than having to enter their own information on a third-party site.


Marianne Kolbasuk McGee is a senior writer for InformationWeek.

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