Digital Health

Digital Patient Engagement: Actionable Communications to Help Patients Navigate Healthcare White Paper

Healthcare organizations use digital engagement to create new pathways

Vik_KrishnanBefore 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.

Combining New Tools with Tried-and-True Engagement Practices

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:

  • Make it conversational. First and foremost, it’s essential that automated engagement mimic natural, two-way conversation—meaning patients can respond to a request. Today, new technologies enable this. For example, sophisticated chatbots are equipped to communicate in 100+ languages and can simulate natural dialogue. In addition, the most advanced automated engagement platforms allow for real-time response via text message.
  • Ensure that it’s convenient. Give patients the opportunity to respond when it’s the best time for them, and they will be more likely to take action. For example, rather than simply providing reminders for an upcoming routine or preventive care visit, health systems should consider using two-way, automated outreach that allows patients to easily schedule or reschedule their visit via SMS, at any time, from any place.
  • Deploy regular communications to bridge knowledge gaps. Studies show that one of the barriers to successful patient outreach or engagement is that patients lack an understanding of tasks they are being asked to perform, including refilling medication, scheduling appointments, and care-plan prep and follow-up. Two-way, closed-loop communications and chatbot interactions are ideal for providing context and guidance to patients throughout their care journey. Digital patient engagement platforms that feature these capabilities make it easy for patients to respond to requests and ask questions. For example, a patient can request live chat assistance to get clarification on test prep instructions right from an SMS message.
  • Tailor the experience based on patient preferences and demographics. According to the same study, engagement efforts must “target individuals based on their personal preferences.” As such, automated communication must feel personalized in order to inspire the patient to act and interact. Systems with multi-language, multi-modal capabilities help provider organizations connect with each patient by targeting channel and language preferences, as well as specific healthcare needs.

Ushering in a New Era of Engagement

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.

Other Advantages of Automated Patient Engagement

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:

  • Improve the patient experience. By communicating how and when patients want, allowing them to respond, and giving them control over managing, scheduling and care needs, health systems can create a better experience and measurably increase patient satisfaction.
  • Lower costs. Automation can improve the efficiency of clinical and non-clinical staff, reduce call center volume and alleviate workload burdens, taking back time for one-to-one patient care and easing burnout by reducing avoidable administrative tasks.
  • Reduce revenue leakage. An integrated messaging approach can drive better closure rates for referrals, reduce no-shows and bad prep for procedures like colonoscopies, and improve treatment and preventive care adherence. This adds up to increased revenue for health systems striving to maintain profitability during these challenging times.
  • Get patients back in the healthcare system and back on track with healthy habits. Actionable communications encourage patients to schedule visits and procedures that close gaps in care and improve the quality of their health. When healthcare organizations deploy regular, personalized, conversational messages, patients are more likely to act.

Confluence Health: Automated COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign

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.

Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin: Automated Referrals Campaign

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.

In Conclusion

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.

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