BACKGROUND: Use of patient portals has been associated with positive outcomes in patient engagement and satisfaction. Portal studies have also connected portal use, as well as the nature of users' interactions with portals, and the contents of their generated data to meaningful cost and quality outcomes. Incentive programs in the United States have encouraged uptake of health information technology, including patient portals, by setting standards for meaningful use of such technology. However, despite widespread interest in patient portal use and adoption, studies on patient portals differ in actual metrics used to operationalize and track utilization, leading to unsystematic and incommensurable characterizations of use. No known review has systematically assessed the measurements used to investigate patient portal utilization.
OBJECTIVE: The objective of this study was to apply systematic review criteria to identify and compare methods for quantifying and reporting patient portal use.
METHODS: Original studies with quantifiable metrics of portal use published in English between 2014 and the search date of October 17, 2018, were obtained from PubMed using the Medical Subject Heading term "Patient Portals" and related keyword searches. The first search round included full text review of all results to confirm a priori data charting elements of interest and suggest additional categories inductively; this round was supplemented by the retrieval of works cited in systematic reviews (based on title screening of all citations). An additional search round included broader keywords identified during the full-text review of the first round. Second round results were screened at abstract level for inclusion and confirmed by at least two raters. Included studies were analyzed for metrics related to basic use/adoption, frequency of use, duration metrics, intensity of use, and stratification of users into "super user" or high utilizers. Additional categories related to provider (including care team/administrative) use of the portal were identified inductively. Additional analyses included metrics aligned with meaningful use stage 2 (MU-2) categories employed by the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the association between the number of portal metrics examined and the number of citations and the journal impact factor.
RESULTS: Of 315 distinct search results, 87 met the inclusion criteria. Of the a priori metrics, plus provider use, most studies included either three (26 studies, 30%) or four (23 studies, 26%) metrics. Nine studies (10%) only reported the patient use/adoption metric and only one study (1%) reported all six metrics. Of the US-based studies (n=76), 18 (24%) were explicitly motivated by MU-2 compliance; 40 studies (53%) at least mentioned these incentives, but only 6 studies (8%) presented metrics from which compliance rates could be inferred. Finally, the number of metrics examined was not associated with either the number of citations or the publishing journal's impact factor.
CONCLUSIONS: Portal utilization measures in the research literature can fall below established standards for "meaningful" or they can substantively exceed those standards in the type and number of utilization properties measured. Understanding how patient portal use has been defined and operationalized may encourage more consistent, well-defined, and perhaps more meaningful standards for utilization, informing future portal development.