Can digital health tech make patient engagement seem seamless?

After the boost that technology provided for virtual care, leading organizations are looking to build on the lessons learned in the pandemic

While the pandemic accelerated efforts to deploy customer-facing technologies, healthcare organizations now wrestle with the continuing steps they need to take to truly engage with their patients.

Many are finding that engagement isn’t achieved by installing any one kind of technology – rather, it’s a process that covers a variety of touchpoints with patients that encourages them to receive care, navigate their care journey until they’re well, and then stay connected to the organization post encounter.H

The pandemic has been an accelerant, said Katie Miller, vice president of access to care for Oschner Health System in Louisiana. “We think of it as spanning from when a patient is seeking care, then coordinating care and giving them timely information, and then it’s the post-care and follow-up. Then, it’s restarting that loop as they continue to move through our health system.”

Miller was among a panel of digital health leaders in a session entitled, “Top of Mind for Top Health Systems: Improving Patient Access,” which discussed key findings in the recently released Top of Mind Report, from the Center for Connected Medicine and KLAS Research. The group was brought together to discuss the Top of Mind research, add the perspective from health systems and set out expectations for digital health in the coming year.

Patients increasingly need help  -- in the form of supportive engagement – to help them easily navigate the health system from which they are accessing care, said Katie Scott, vice president of digital strategy at UPMC Enterprises, a group within Pittsburgh-based UPMC that invests in a variety of initiatives to encourage innovation in healthcare.

“For us, it’s getting them access to information or getting them access to care,” Scott said. “We’re realizing that, as a health system, we’re a big behemoth Rube Goldberg machine to them. We need to make it more seamless to them, getting them whatever it might be that they need.”

The survey that undergirds the Top of Mind Report showed nearly universal understanding among respondents that patient access is crucial – 99 percent said it was either a high or very high priority, and 74 percent anticipate that increased investment in patient access technology is highly likely in 2022.

Continuing work on that mixture will be important for Intermountain Healthcare, said William Beninati, MD, chief medical officer for telehealth for the Salt Lake City-based healthcare system. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the organization had been taking steps to improve telehealth capabilities. While that was crucial over the past two years, it’s only a first step, he said.

“It’s important to offer care in the least restrictive setting possible,” Beninati explained. “For some, that means offering a range of digital options for care.” For some consumers, he noted, face-to-face encounters via telehealth may not be necessary, if interactions can be better handled asynchronously or via other digital tools.

More widely deploying these alternatives are also important to Intermountain, which wants to improve access to care in rural areas that it serves, Beninati said.

Telehealth and other forms of digital care can help healthcare organizations deliver an experience that matches what consumers see elsewhere in their lives. “Patients are used to healthcare being hard to access. We can provide a better experience than what they’re used to or expecting,” UPMC’s Scott said. “We have to meet that digital expectation. When we can give you that telemedicine visit tomorrow, it’s a delighter. It’s a risk (for providers) to do things differently, but it’s an opportunity to improve patient satisfaction.”

For Intermountain, its broader digital health strategy goes beyond telemedicine to include the use of chat bots, remote patient monitoring and more, and it’s springboarding off its experience with the pandemic to build on those initiatives.

Oschner has seen the number of virtual visits fall back from peaks during the height of the pandemic, Miller said. “But we’re trying to keep this going,” she added. “This is the new normal, how we’re going to communicate and how we’re going to deliver care. Physicians got to experience it during the pandemic,” and workflows have been adjusted over the past 18 months to accommodate continued use of digital health.

Healthcare organizations are building on the lessons learned during the pandemic to seek unified solutions that better connect the patient vs. the “hodge-podge of technology” they had to use as the in-person restrictions went into effect in 2020, said Adam Gale, co-founder and CEO of KLAS Research, who moderated the panel.

“The question is, how do we make it feel seamless to the patient,” said UPMC’s Scott. “Can they get to that piece of information that they need, that telemedicine visit, that message to the doctor, so that everyone in the organization knows the same things about them. Even if it can’t be seamless under the covers, how can we make it seem seamless to the consumer?”

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