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A Randomized Trial to Train Vulnerable Primary Care Patients to Use a Patient Portal

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Patient portals are becoming ubiquitous. Previous research has documented substantial barriers, especially among vulnerable patient subgroups such as those with lower socioeconomic status or limited health literacy (LHL). We tested the effectiveness of delivering online, video-based portal training to patients in a safety net setting.


We created an online video curriculum about accessing the San Francisco Health Network portal, and then randomized 93 English-speaking patients with 1+ chronic diseases to receive 1) an in-person tutorial with a research assistant, or 2) a link to view the videos on their own. We also examined a third, nonrandomized usual care comparison group. The primary outcome was portal log-in (yes/no) 3 to 6 months post-training, assessed via the electronic health record. Secondary outcomes were self-reported attitudes and skills collected via baseline and follow-up surveys.


Mean age was 54 years, 51% had LHL, 60% were nonwhite, 52% were female, 45% reported fair/poor health, and 76% reported daily Internet use. At followup, 21% logged into the portal, with no differences by arm (P = .41), but this was higher than the overall clinic rate of 9% (P < .01) during the same time period. We found significant prepost improvements in self-rated portal skills (P = .03) and eHealth literacy (P < .01). Those with LHL were less likely to log in post-training (P < .01).


Both modalities of online training were comparable, and neither mode enabled a majority of vulnerable patients to use portals, especially those with LHL. This suggests that portal training will need to be more intensive or portals need improved usability to meaningfully increase use among diverse patients.

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