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A patient portal is an online account for managing and tracking your health care. However, many people still aren't taking advantage of their portal's full offering—or using it at all.
"A lot of times, a patient portal is going to be a central hub for the patient's collective journey through their care," says Liz Serie, director of product management at Experian Health. "It's a more fluid process, so you can focus on the episode of care, healing and your health."
In short, using your patient portal can take some of the headache out of dealing with the health care system, which can be especially important when you're dealing with a health emergency.
How Patient Care Has Been Changing
Health care providers have offered electronic health records and patient portals for years. And even since the passage of a 2009 federal law that encouraged the transition, progress has been slow. Creating a portal is one thing—getting patients to sign up for and consistently use a portal is another. Then the coronavirus hit.
"COVID-19 has absolutely accelerated [the transition]," Serie says. Many health care providers had three- to five-year year timelines for new technology, but saw the need to implement changes immediately instead. For example, the combination of pandemic-related shelter-in-place orders and the risk associated with in-person appointments led to a dramatic increase in telehealth visits.
In addition, Serie points to the accelerated implementation of pre- and post-service offerings through patient portals. For instance, with a patient portal, you can schedule appointments, sign documents and understand what you'll owe ahead of time. Afterward, you can log in to your portal to see test results, send secure messages to your doctors and pay outstanding bills.
Both pre- and post-care offerings can reduce how many people you have to interact with in person, and how much time you need to spend on the phone or at providers' offices.
Another technological change that's happening behind the scenes is that providers are prioritizing the centralization of clinical information for things like test results, and the sharing of information and schedules between offices. The change can be especially helpful to patients who are dealing with a major or ongoing health concern that requires multiple appointments, tests and medications.
What Can You Do With Your Patient Portal?
Providers' offerings vary, but you may be able to use your portal to quickly deal with common and sometimes frustrating aspects of health care: scheduling appointments, signing documents, requesting prescription refills, paying bills and so on. Patient portals' functionality can also go beyond helping you get through administrative tasks.
Some of the most common features and functions include:
- Access your medical records
- View test results
- Check your vaccinations, allergies and medications
- Request prescription refills
- Schedule non-urgent appointments
- Complete required intake forms
- Access e-visits with a provider
- Send secure messages to your doctors
- Review your health care plan benefits and coverage
- Update your information
- Set up reminders and notifications
- Manage one-time and monthly payments
- Get upfront price estimates
- Apply for charity care and payment plans
Portals may also offer educational material that's relevant to an upcoming appointment, or that could give context to recent test results. And you'll be able to access your portal anywhere and at any time.
If you haven't already done so, you can create your account online from a web browser. Health care providers take steps to confirm and protect patient data, including automated identity checks, and some also offer apps for quicker access. If you're caring for someone else, such as a child, spouse or older relative, you may also be able to request proxy access to their online portal.
How Medical Debt Can Impact Your Credit
You may already know that loans and outstanding debts can impact your credit scores. The same could be true of medical bills, but they're treated a little differently from other types of debt.
- If you pay your bill on time and in full, then your medical debts will likely never appear in your credit reports. As a result, they won't help or hurt your credit.
- Unpaid medical bills can be sent to collections and reported to the credit bureaus. But there's a 180-day waiting period before medical debts appear in your credit reports. The grace period gives you time to deal with your health care and insurance providers to resolve unpaid bills and get on a payment plan.
- If a collection account remains unpaid, it could be added to your credit reports after the 180-day waiting period. Recent credit scoring models don't count unpaid medical collections against you as much as other types of collections. They can still hurt your credit scores, however.
- Keep in mind that if you use a credit card or take out a loan to pay the bill, then the protections that cover medical bills might not apply.
If you're unable to afford your medical bills in full, you can look for help from various sources. Some health care providers may offer direct aid, or a low- or no-interest payment plan. You may also be able to dispute incorrect bills, negotiate a discount for upfront payments or find assistance from charitable organizations.
Use Your Patient Portal to Access and Monitor Your Care
Patient portals can offer a wide variety of time- and money-saving options, including telehealth appointments and secure messaging with your doctor. In terms of managing your physical and financial health, you may also be able to use the portal to get an estimate of how much a procedure will cost and plan accordingly. Afterward, the portal may help you quickly set up a payment plan, connect you with financial aid options or explore contactless payment methods.
If you're looking for an online portal to manage your credit, you could use Experian's free online account. Once you sign up, you can get your free Experian credit report and FICO® Score☉ based on it, along with credit report monitoring, online disputes and access to tools to help you boost your score or get personalized loan offers.