Industry, HIT vendors ponder how best to engage patients

While healthcare organizations rushed into digital transformation in response to the pandemic, much more needs to be done.

Over the past several years, the word “virtual” has swept over healthcare. Nearly every provider organization is looking for ways to use technology to engage with patients virtually, but so far, progress has been spotty.

Most health systems are using patient engagement tools—just not the right ones, say industry watchers. Recent research suggests that vendors and providers will need to give patients access to more and easier capabilities if they want to truly have an engaged customer base.

Patient Desires Are Understood but Unfulfilled

In 2020, KLAS Research surveyed more than 300 patients and published the results in a whitepaper entitled, “Patient Perspectives on Patient Engagement 2020: Amplifying the Patient Voice.” When asked which technologies they would like to see focused on in the future, the patients spouted a familiar list. The following chart from the KLAS whitepaper outlines the desired technologies in order of popularity with the surveyed patients.

KLAS’ findings show that, in addition to having further improvements brought to patient portals, patients want access to easier care via telehealth, as well as improved interactions through better interactions and self-scheduling.

Patients’ interest in such capabilities has been found in previous research. Years before the COVID-induced spike in telemedicine, 98 percent of patients queried for an Atanda survey were interested in virtual visits. Some 80 percent of consumers were requesting online scheduling, according to a Healthgrades/Stax report, and online bill-pay capabilities were sought by a majority of responding consumers contacted for a 2017 InstaMed annual report.

Even though this trend has been evident in recent years, few provider organizations are acting on it, KLAS research indicates. The research organization’s whitepaper indicates that while several tool sets are wanted by patients, sought by provider organizations and offered by technology vendors, misalignment exists in getting desired services to patients (see chart below).

KLAS’ study indicates that services most desired by patients – arranging care, patient empowerment, patient account management and finding a provider – are those that have some of the largest gaps in terms of vendor development.

“Patients have a strong desire to understand their symptoms and healthcare needs and then find the right physician to help them,” KLAS’ whitepaper notes. “However, so far, provider investment and vendor development have not aligned with that desire. Only one in five patient engagement vendors measured by KLAS offers a triage/symptom-checker tool today. … Patient account management is also important to patients. Provider investment in this area is moderate, but vendor development has lagged, especially when it comes to price transparency.”

Why Do Technology Disparities Exist?

If healthcare stakeholders know what patients want, why aren’t more of them investing enough energy and capital in those tools? The short answer is that patients aren’t the only priority.

Steven Huddleston, CEO of the patient access vendor PELITAS, put it this way: “Most of the tools [the healthcare industry has] developed and adopted have actually been developed with a sole focus on easing the burden on clinicians rather than patients. Important financial, administrative and patient-facing elements of these tools tend to be an afterthought. As a result, patients have often been obliged to go to facilities that use cumbersome processes with limited or no self-service opportunities.”

Many industry observers believe that simplifying health systems’ technology is a worthwhile goal for both vendors and provider leaders, and it can help decrease physician burnout and overhead costs. But using technology to support improved patient experience may come at the expense of clinicians’ or technologists’ comfort with technology deployments.

Mike Brandofino, president and COO of telehealth vendor Caregility, acknowledged that provider organizations face a difficult task. “I was a CTO myself at one point, and I understand that tech leaders in health systems are looking for the ‘easy button’—something they can implement and manage easily, something from a well-known brand. These tech leaders need to step back and use a different process to make decisions.”

A Time of Transformation

Many provider organizations understand the importance of virtual engagement with patients and are making strides toward this emerging imperative. According to IDC Health Insights data, the average healthcare organization finished two years’ worth of digital transformation in the first two months of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this spike of activity seems to have jump-started providers into an ongoing journey of improvement.

Will providers’ next digital strategies be dictated by the patient voice? That remains to be seen, but each healthcare organization with technology currently under construction has a unique opportunity to make sure any new tools and processes will serve the patient first.

While prioritizing the clinician can sideline the patient, many industry experts contend that catering to the patient typically helps all stakeholders. For example, the authors of a 2018 Implementation Science article suggested, “Increasing literature indicates that it is not only feasible to involve patients in the delivery or re-design of healthcare but that such engagement can lead to reduced hospital admissions, improved effectiveness, efficiency and quality of health services, improved quality of life, and enhanced quality and accountability of health services.” The article’s authors praised frameworks of patient involvement “that move from the traditional view of the patient as a passive recipient of a service to an integral member of teams redesigning healthcare.”

The task of redesigning healthcare must be shared by IT vendors. Some have created new products in areas like telemedicine, virtual patient intake management and SDOH informatics. Provider leaders that implement such technologies hope to enhance the consumer experience, enable clinicians to collaborate more effectively with patients, and incentivize vendors to develop additional patient-centric products.

The Value of an Engaged Patient

Many healthcare organizations delay purchasing cutting-edge patient engagement tools because of financial burdens. These organizations may underestimate the financial benefits of patient engagement, industry analysts contend.

A patient who can participate fully in their own care and communicate effectively with their healthcare providers is less likely to skip preventative care, miss appointments or payments, disobey physician instructions, suffer catastrophic health events or get readmitted after a hospital visit, multiple studies suggest. One Healthenic whitepaper estimates that the healthcare industry loses millions of dollars each year just from medication non-adherence, which could be significantly reduced through more effective patient engagement strategies.

Provider organizations also are increasingly looking for patient loyalty to support continuity of care and ensure repeat patient visits. There is an increasing sense among healthcare organizations that unimpressed consumers will take their business and money elsewhere. Huddleston issued this warning: “The COVID-19 pandemic is showing the public which healthcare organizations cannot or will not provide convenient options. Those providers are very likely to lose patients forever, and it may be a lot of patients.”

Connecting the Dots

Patients want to engage in their healthcare. When asked to describe the ideal tools to help them do that, respondents to KLAS’ 2020 survey had plenty to say, through their written comments.

  • “There should be a single place that gives me access to all my medical records, test results, and so forth so I can own my health data and share it as needed with various providers.”
  • “We need the ability to communicate with providers via technology. Currently, it is extremely hard to contact providers without being in front of them in their office.”
  • “I want a single portal that allows me to make an appointment, check in online, view lab results, communicate with my physician, and so forth. The medical portal used by my physician is not very user friendly. It could use an overhaul.”

Patients need tools that are convenient, comprehensive, and collaborative. Developing and implementing the right technology will continue to test healthcare vendors and providers for the foreseeable future, but the past 18 months have shown how admirably these stakeholders rise to a challenge, industry experts conclude.