Patient portals as a tool for health care engagement: A mixed-method study of older adults with varying levels of health literacy and prior patient portal use

Taya Irizarry, Jocelyn Shoemake, Marci Lee Nilsen, Sara Czaja, Scott Beach, Annette DeVito Dabbs

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Background: Growing evidence that patient engagement improves health outcomes and reduces health care costs has fueled health providers’ focus on patient portals as the primary access point for personal health information and patient-provider communication. Whereas much attention has been given to identifying characteristics of older adults who do and do not adopt patient portals and necessary adaptions to portal design, little is known about their attitudes and perceptions regarding patient portal use as a tool for engagement in their health care within the context of health literacy, experience navigating Web-based health information, and previous patient portal use. Objective: The specific aims of this study were to explore attitudes toward portal adoption and its perceived usefulness as a tool for health care engagement among adults (65 years and older) who have varying levels of health literacy and degrees of prior patient portal use. Methods: A phone survey of 100 community dwelling adults gathered sociodemographic, health, and technology related information. Older adults were purposefully selected for 4 follow-up focus groups based on survey responses to health literacy and previous patient portal use. A mixed-method approach was used to integrate phone survey data with thematic analysis of 4 focus groups. Due to variability in attitudes between focus group participants, an individual case analysis was performed and thematic patterns were used as the basis for subgroup formation. Results: Differences in health literacy, comfort navigating health information on the Web, and previous portal experience explained some but not all differences related to the 7 themes that emerged in the focus groups analysis. Individual cases who shared attitudes were arranged into 5 subgroups from least to most able and willing to engage in health care via a patient portal. The subgroups’ overall portal adoption attitudes were: (1) Don’t want to feel pushed into anything, (2) Will only adopt if required, (3) Somebody needs to help me, (4) See general convenience of the portal for simple tasks and medical history, but prefer human contact for questions, and (5) Appreciates current features and excited about new possibilities . Conclusions: Most of the older adults are interested in using a patient portal regardless of health literacy level, previous patient portal adoption, or experience navigating health information on the Web. Research targeting informal caregivers of older adults who are unable or unwilling to engage with information technology in health care on their own is warranted. Health care organizations should consider tailored strategies to meet the needs of older adults (and their informal caregivers) and explore alternative workflows that integrate patient portal information into phone conversations and face-to-face contact with health care providers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere99
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2017


  • Access to information
  • Aged
  • Health literacy
  • Patient participation
  • Patient portals
  • Patient preference
  • Telemedicine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


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