Why Your Social Service Organization Needs a Client Portal

Written by Caitlin Feehan

Think about the last time you weren’t feeling well. What did you do when you first realized something was off?

Maybe you decided to wait it for it to go away on its own, asked a friend or family member for advice, or even relied on Google to “diagnose” you. It can be tempting to try to solve your own problems, but when it comes to something as important as your health, it’s best to consult a professional.

The process of getting a professional opinion from a medical or social service provider generally requires significant time and effort from both staff and clients. Seemingly small tasks—like answering phones, asking standard intake questions, and checking service provider availability—can quickly add up to hours of staff time. It’s important for social service organizations to simplify or even eliminate these tasks in order to operate more efficiently and provide a better experience for clients. One of the best ways to do this is by using a client portal.

Client portals are web-based, mobile-friendly platforms usually integrated with a social service or health care organization’s case management software. Clients are given access to the portal, where they can go not only to request appointments, but to view and modify those appointments, engage in two-way communication with their service providers, fill out documentation before or after a session, and more. As social service professionals and other care providers begin to recognize the benefits of keeping their clients engaged in their health care, client portals are being viewed as less of a perk and more of a necessity.

Keep reading to learn about the positive impact client portals have on users, the features that make this possible, and the organizations that have successfully put them into practice.

What’s the point?

To begin, let’s review the whole idea behind client portals.

Interacting with a client portal helps users realize that their actions have power and that they’re in control of their situation. This newfound sense of independence contributes to improved client outcomes, behaviour, and experiences.

In a 2013 study from the Portland VA Medical Center, researchers found that patients who were able to access their health information on the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) MyHealtheVet patient portal reported better control over their health. They felt that seeing their records positively affected communication with providers and the health system, enhanced knowledge of their health and improved self-care, and allowed for greater participation in the quality of their care.

The results of this study are mirrored by dozens of reports examining the effects that client portals have on users. Consistently positive outcomes confirm that this online method of patient-provider interaction is important, and even necessary, to the success of social service and nonprofit organizations.


Reduce admin tasks and missed appointments

Now that we’ve given you a glimpse of the positive impact client portals can have on users, we’ll dive into some of the specific features that make them so effective.
The first feature we’ll focus on is the ability for users to view their service providers’ calendars and request appointments right from their mobile devices. This means that patients don’t need to call or email their service provider, which saves communication time for both parties and cuts down on administrative time spent manually scheduling appointments.

In addition to being able to schedule their own appointments, clients can sign up to receive SMS or email appointment reminders and can even confirm their attendance via mobile. This holds the client more accountable for their appointments, making them more likely to attend.

A study that investigated the impact of client portal use on appointment attendance was done by the Ontario Shores Centre for Mental Health Sciences in 2016. For one year, they followed patients undergoing treatment for serious or persistent mental illness and found that patients with access to a web-based client portal were 67% more likely to attend appointments than nonusers. This is significant, especially when considering the amount of time—and subsequently, money—that is saved when service providers don’t have to sit around waiting for their clients to show up.

Decreased misused appointment time and improve funding efforts

Client portals also offer users the option to complete documentation, like surveys and self-assessments, before appointments instead of during them. As unbelievable as it may seem, studies show that physicians spend 37% of appointment time doing paperwork. By having it complete beforehand, the amount of time service providers can spend focused on valuable client-worker interaction increases dramatically, resulting in improved client outcomes and subsequently making it easier for your organization to secure and keep funding.

Funding organizations are moving away from an activity-based funding model, where healthcare providers are allocated funds based on the type and volume of services they provide, and toward outcomes-based funding models where governments financially reward service providers for having a positive, measurable impact on the lives of their clients. When working within an outcomes-based funding model, social service organizations must reach specific targets set by funding organizations if they want to qualify for future grants.

Since outcome-based funding models are becoming the norm, it’s essential that organizations like yours optimize their use of time and focus on delivering the best care possible to improve client outcomes and secure critical funding.

Enable fast, easy, and secure billing

These days, people expect the option to pay online, whether they’re buying goods, services, or experiences. If your clients can pay for batteries and pad Thai online, why shouldn’t they be able to do the same for counselling sessions?

Client portals make this a non-issue by offering clients the option to view their invoices right on their mobile devices and pay using their credit card or PayPal immediately after appointments. This helps clients avoid having to wait days or weeks to receive their invoice in the mail and helps service providers get paid faster. The diagram below illustrates the typical payment process for organizations that are able to offer self-pay services through a client portal.

Services are provided

Invoice is made available in client portal

Client pays through mobile app

Services are provided

Invoice is made available in client portal

Client pays through mobile app

The billing capabilities of client portals also save staff data entry time, waiting time, and travel time. They ensure that payment information is entered fully and correctly, eliminating the chance of user error that comes with filling out cheques. Using an electronic billing system also has a positive environmental impact, as it removes the need to print paper copies of invoices and other forms. This payment style is quick and convenient and makes the lives of service providers and their clients much easier.

Organizations that don’t use patient portals to simplify their billing process often have to wait much longer to receive payments. A typical billing workflow for an organization in this situation looks something like this:

As you can see, there are many extra steps when dealing with traditional billing systems, and this makes it hard for nonprofits and social service organizations to keep accurate and up-to-date financial records. Without accurate financial records, these organizations will have a hard time finding and securing funding, which could be detrimental to their operations.

In addition, because of all the delays involved in the typical billing process, patients may forget that they owe money until they get a letter warning them that a payment is due or, even worse, that they’ve missed their due date and now owe late fees. Without the ability to go online and check their payment balance and billing history, patients have no visibility into their financial standing unless they diligently keep paper records or visit their service provider in person to get copies. The latter option is a problem all on its own, as many clients cannot take time off from work just to sort out their bills. The default reaction in this case may be to try to forget about it and hope it goes away on its own, which leaves clients feeling anxious and disconnected from their care and leaves service organizations wondering when (or if) they’ll get paid.

Implementing a client portal to manage billing allows users to easily view digital copies of their invoices, check their payment balance, and pay bills on their own time. This relieves stress and aggravation for the client and provider, making it a truly win-win situation.

Strengthen relationships between patient and provider

Another important and innovative feature that many client portals offer is the ability for patients to engage in secure two-way communication with their service providers, either through email or in-app messaging. This allows both the client and staff member to be self-managing, as they do not need to go through an administrator before speaking to each other. This can save time for everyone involved, while positively impacting client outcomes.

A study conducted in 2017 by researchers in Norway explored how using a client portal impacted both individuals receiving mental health services and their health service providers. Secure messaging between provider and patient was a main feature of the portal.

While participants identified both strengths and weaknesses of the platform, many of their comments were affirmative. Service providers who participated reported that receiving messages before consultations helped them to prepare and understand what was expected of them. They also enjoyed the increased visibility into client progress and believed that patients felt more appreciated while using the messaging function of the portal. One service provider emphasized the importance of simply being available, stating that being able to message their providers helped patients “…feel that they are part of something greater, maybe. That there is a connection somewhere out there […] or someone they can be in touch with.”

Clients were also positively impacted by the availability of two-way communication, reporting strengthened relationships with service providers and a feeling of comfort that came with messaging them when problems arose. One client recalled the healing benefits of using the portal to message their provider before bed, which they said allowed them to clear their mind “…instead of ruminating about all this stuff and not getting to sleep.” As long as communication expectations were made clear to both groups, the portal’s messaging feature was considered to be practical and constructive.

These insights suggest that patients value the opportunity to communicate with their service providers online and can greatly benefit by using tools that make this possible.

As a social service organization in 2020, it’s critical to understand the changing needs and expectations of your clients. The world is moving at an incredible pace, and it’s important to invest in the right software solutions—like interactive client portals and comprehensive case management systems—if you want to better serve your clients and keep up with your competitors.

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