BACKGROUND: Patient portals play an important role in connecting patients with their medical care team, which improves patient engagement in treatment plans, decreases unnecessary visits, and reduces costs. During natural disasters, patients' needs increase, whereas available resources, specifically access to care, become limited.
OBJECTIVE: This study aims to examine patients' health needs during a natural crisis by analyzing the electronic messages sent during Hurricane Harvey to guide future disaster planning efforts.
METHODS: We explored patient portal use data from a large Greater Houston area health care system focusing on the initial week of the Hurricane Harvey disaster, beginning with the date of landfall, August 25, 2017, to August 31, 2017. A mixed methods approach was used to assess patients' immediate health needs and concerns during the disruption of access to routine and emergent medical care. Quantitative analysis used logistic regression models to assess the predictive characteristics of patients using the portal during Hurricane Harvey. This study also included encounters by type (emergency, inpatient, observation, outpatient, and outpatient surgery) and time (before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey). For qualitative analysis, the content of these messages was examined using the constant comparative method to identify emerging themes found within the message texts.
RESULTS: Out of a total of 557,024 patients, 4079 (0.73%) sent a message during Hurricane Harvey, whereas 31,737 (5.69%) used the portal. Age, sex, race, and ethnicity were predictive factors for using the portal and sending a message during the natural disaster. We found that prior use of the patient portal increased the likelihood of portal use during Hurricane Harvey (odds ratio 13.688, 95% CI 12.929-14.491) and of sending a portal message during the disaster (odds ratio 14.172, 95% CI 11.879-16.907). Having an encounter 4 weeks before or after Hurricane Harvey was positively associated with increased use of the portal and sending a portal message. Patients with encounters during the main Hurricane Harvey week had a higher increased likelihood of portal use across all five encounter types. Qualitative themes included: access, prescription requests, medical advice (chronic conditions, acute care, urgent needs, and Hurricane Harvey-related injuries), mental health, technical difficulties, and provider constraints.
CONCLUSIONS: The patient portal can be a useful tool for communication between patients and providers to address the urgent needs and concerns of patients as a natural disaster unfolds. This was the first known study to include encounter data to understand portal use compared with care provisioning. Prior use was predictive of both portal use and message sending during Hurricane Harvey. These findings could inform the types of demands that may arise in future disaster situations and can serve as the first step in intentionally optimizing patient portal usability for emergency health care management during natural disasters.