Patient characteristics and utilization of an online patient portal in a rural academic general internal medicine practice

BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. 2022 Feb 16;22(1):42. doi: 10.1186/s12911-022-01778-w.


Background: Online patient portals have the potential to improve patient engagement and health care outcomes. This is especially true among rural patient populations that may live far from their health care providers and for whom transportation is a barrier to accessing care. This study compared the characteristics of active users of an online patient portal to non-users and assessed utilization among users in a rural academic primary care clinic to identify disparities in adoption and use.

Methods: We conducted a cross sectional study of 28,028 patients in a general internal medicine clinic between June 2019 and May 2020 to assess (a) characteristics of patients who had an online patient portal account and used the patient portal compared to those who did not register for an account, and (b) the frequency of use of the patient portal (number of logons and number of messages sent and received) by patients over the study period. We compared results based on demographic characteristics, focusing on gender, age, race, presence or absence of nine chronic illnesses, smoking status, and BMI.

Results: In the study cohort of 28,028 patients, 82% were active users of the patient portal. Females, patients aged 41-65, and non-smokers were more likely to use the portal than their counterparts. In total, patients with eight out of nine chronic illness groups studied (heart failure, cerebrovascular disease, history of a myocardial infarction, peripheral vascular disease, and renal disease) were less likely to use the patient portal than patients without these chronic conditions. On average, patients log onto the patient portal 25 times per year and send and receive 6 messages to and from the clinic. We found that females, patients older than 65, former smokers and obese patients logged on and sent and received more messages compared to the overall cohort. Although the sample size was small, on average Black patients logged onto the patient portal 19 times and sent and received 3.6 messages compared to White patients who logged on 25 times with 5.8 messages on average over the yearlong study period.

Conclusions: In a rural academic internal medicine clinic, female patients, aged 41-65, non-smokers, and those without certain chronic conditions were more likely to use an online patient portal. Recognizing and addressing barriers to patient portal use is essential for robust and sustained patient portal uptake and ensuring that the benefits of portal use are equally distributed among all patients.

Keywords: Disparities; Health information; Patient portal; Rural.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Internal Medicine
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care* / statistics & numerical data
  • Patient Portals* / statistics & numerical data
  • Patients* / psychology
  • Patients* / statistics & numerical data
  • Rural Health Services