Before the pandemic, many patients found it challenging to navigate their care options, especially given the complexity of the healthcare system and pervasive issues with health literacy. Now that concerns about COVID-19 compound these issues, modern healthcare organizations must motivate patients to act, guiding them to necessary care in both physical and virtual settings while educating these individuals about treatment instructions and adherence.
Reaching patients requires a thoughtful engagement approach that is highly personalized and minimizes the burden on staff members. The latter should be top of mind for any health system leader because increased workloads for healthcare workers already facing stress and strain from COVID-19 will exacerbate burnout. To be effective, outreach must use the channels patients prefer and encourage patients to respond when they are able. Asynchronous engagement allows for this so that patients can respond when they want to act, while staff can follow up when it makes sense. In particular, automated communication via SMS helps patients navigate numerous needs and concerns, from scheduling a vaccine to preparing for an upcoming surgery.
Fortunately, automated digital patient engagement can meet the needs of patients, providers and healthcare staff. Provider organizations should look for solutions that are technologically current and robust, then combine those capabilities with these best practices:
The ideal platform will enable multi-language, multi-channel outreach (including SMS) as well as two-way communication that drives action. These two-way interactions, along with precise tailoring of patient outreach, are made possible by deep electronic health record integration and chatbot technology. In addition, a platform with these features should automatically document all communications in the existing EHR without manual data entry to reduce the burden on staff and let the EHR serve as the “single source of truth” for every patient interaction.
Organizations can deploy automated engagement to support patient education, referral management, appointment management, remote monitoring, patient satisfaction surveys, and pre-and post-procedure support. From initial outreach to follow-up and reinforcement, this approach lets provider organizations drive patient action without the high cost and heavy burdens that come with manual phone calls, often-ignored emails, direct mail and manual data sharing between healthcare administrative systems.
As care practices like curbside check-in and virtual visits become commonplace, SMS engagement can help patients understand how to prepare for visits. A direct, text-based approach eliminates log-in or password challenges and cumbersome interfaces that bog down patient portals. Since patient portals have a low adoption rate, automated messaging delivered via SMS helps bridge the gap, allowing patients to send and receive information, schedule appointments, and more from the convenience of their hand-held device.
When brought together in a single platform, the capabilities mentioned above can replace many time-consuming, manual patient interactions. In addition, automating engagement provides these benefits to the health system and its patients:
In early 2021, the operations team at Confluence Health needed to schedule thousands of patients for the first and second dose of COVID-19 vaccinations, within a three-to-six-month period, at multiple vaccine clinic locations. The organization wanted to educate patients about the importance of getting vaccinated and to reduce no-shows for these valuable appointments, especially for second visits, all without burdening its team members. The organization created an automated digital patient engagement campaign to accomplish these goals, delivered via SMS and with direct-scheduling capabilities. The workflow was designed for real-time deployment and could be scaled and automated as vaccine qualification criteria expanded to new populations.
The campaign allowed them to rapidly reach out to about 6,000 patients, encouraging them to self-schedule, significantly reducing the burden of the call center staff and resulting in only a 1 percent no-show rate for scheduled patients.
Increasing referral orders required Froedtert staff members to take time away from patients and other administrative duties. Managing the referral load via phone, leaving voicemails and awaiting responses also consumed valuable staff hours. The organization also experienced declining patient interest, leaving referrals open without an effective way to close care gaps. In response, the organization decided to automate parts of a workflow via a digital patient engagement platform that simplified the referral process and produced better patient outcomes.
During the initial deployment, the health network engaged approximately 1,800 contacts using the referral outreach workflow. Automation embedded in the EHR further expedited the referral process by directly capturing calendar events in the patient’s health record. Thanks to these capabilities, the organization was able to turn a multi-week, leaky process into a three-day referral-to-appointment workflow and is currently expanding the referral workflow from three specialties to 30.
During the pandemic, the necessity for physical distance amplified gaps in patient education and communication and created room for rapid expansion of better technologies to support these activities.
Health systems should begin by examining current manual patient engagement activities with an eye for change, given the benefits of automated digital patient engagement. Then, by implementing automated, frequent, personalized outreach optimized with the best practices above, these organizations can create a better patient experience with less burden to the staff.
The views and opinions expressed in this content or by commenters are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of HIMSS or its affiliates.
Technology has changed the way providers practice and patients are treated—but still the human touch remains critical in healthcare and in healing. Digital solutions are playing a new role in supporting empathetic care—and that helps patients and caregivers to feel heard, understood, and cared for.