Ministry of Health: Supporting the implementation of patient portals.

New Zealand's health system supports nearly every New Zealander at some time in their life. As part of providing better services to New Zealanders, the Ministry of Health (the Ministry) is using emerging technology to help people use those services more easily.

Patient portals are secure websites that allow people to access their personal health information and interact with their doctor. Through patient portals, people can send secure messages to their doctor, order repeat prescriptions, and, in some patient portals, view lab results and doctors' notes.

Private companies develop and run the patient portals, and primary health organisations and general medical practices buy access to them. As part of the New Zealand Health Strategy 2016's goal of giving people access to their own health information and encouraging them to be more involved in decisions about their treatment, the Ministry supports the uptake and implementation of patient portals. The Ministry provided a small amount of funding to primary health organisations to help them increase patient portal uptake. However, primary health organisations and general practices had to pay for the patient portal software themselves.

My staff looked at how well the Ministry supported primary health organisations and general practices to implement patient portals.

The Ministry gathered support from, and worked co-operatively with, organisations throughout the health sector, including the Royal New Zealand College of General Practitioners. This support included helping the Ministry to identify, and then working to address, concerns that some doctors had about patient portals.

As at 31 March 2017, just over 50% of general practices were offering patient portals, and about 9% of patients over the age of 18 were registered to use them. There has been an increasing uptake in recent years, with most of those general practices having started offering patient portals since June 2015.

In my view, how the Ministry worked with the health sector contributed to this increased uptake of patient portals. This is a good example of different parts of the health sector working together to achieve a common goal.

Because patient portals give people access to their personal health information, primary health organisations and general practices need to ensure that patient portals are safe and secure from unauthorised access. The Ministry is part of a group that contributes to a strong framework of privacy rules and rights, standards, and guidelines. This framework supports primary health organisations and general practices to protect people's personal health information.

As well as ensuring safety and security, privacy rules and rights also ensure that people have access to, and control of, their personal health information. By giving people greater access to their own health information, patient portals help to improve privacy rights.

My staff saw signs that patient portals were having a positive effect for people and general practices, including improved access to, and efficiency of, health services.

The Ministry is continuing to support primary health organisations and general practices to implement patient portals. However, the Ministry does not collect statistics on the benefits achieved from patient portals. Therefore, it cannot show how patient portals contribute to the strategic outcomes in the New Zealand Health Strategy 2016, or use that information to promote continued uptake and use.

In my view, there is an opportunity for the Ministry to provide added value by collecting statistical information that would enable it to demonstrate the benefits of patient portals. This could help encourage general practices that are reluctant to use them.

I thank the Ministry and its staff, and other interviewees, for their time and participation during our audit.

Signature - GS

Greg Schollum
Deputy Controller and Auditor-General

21 November 2017

Photo acknowledgement: Ginny Dunn