Providers look to digital technology to boost patient access
CCM’s Top of Mind Report shows organizations want to build on changes in encounters accelerated by the response to the pandemic.
Forced to rapidly change delivery models to meet consumer expectations during the COVID-19 pandemic, provider organizations are looking to apply the lessons learned to adopt digital health tools that improve care interactions with patients.
Many key technologies that have sulked along for years were jolted to life by the pandemic, as providers had to prioritize resources, and consumers and caregivers were not keen on in-person care. Those technologies are at the heart of re-imagined healthcare in coming years, according to the Top of Mind Report released this week.
The report, from the Center for Connected Medicine and KLAS Research, highlights the growing use of technology in improving patient access to care. The research found that “health systems needed to do more to address roadblocks that hamper consumers’ ability to engage in their health and seek and receive medical care,” said Alex Nixon, senior research analyst at the Center for Connected Medicine, which is jointly operated by UPMC, a Pittsburgh-based healthcare system, and Nokia.
Some 36 percent of respondents to the survey for the Top of Mind Report cited patient access as the problem in healthcare that has the greatest potential to be improved with digital technology and innovation. In addition, 62 percent of respondents cited telehealth as the area of healthcare technology that’s seen the greatest progress or improvement over the last two years.
While telehealth technology has been in place for more than two decades, reimbursement support from payers and the forces set in motion by the COVID-19 pandemic jump-started increased reliance on these technologies in 2020. That’s abated some in 2021, but many believe that both consumers and providers want to increasingly use virtual care tools when they’re appropriate.
COVID provided a crash course in using technology to support virtual care, said Robert Bart, MD, chief medical information officer for UPMC. The system, which operates about 40 facilities and numerous other care sites, recorded about 1.25 million ambulatory telemedicine visits in 2020, and is on track to provide a million such visits this year, he said. That roughly mirrors the experience of providers nationwide, which have seen declines in virtual care encounters.
Still, providers are looking to integrate virtual care into routines typical for specialties – for example, can care be optimized for diabetics by scheduling one in-person encounter a year, with two other virtual visits? UPMC is looking to study the use of virtual visits for maternity patients, who typically have a schedule of 14 in-person visits. That could be adapted to enable, say, nine in-person visits and five virtual visits, Bart said.
According to the Top of Mind Report, 92 percent of respondents to the survey mentioned telehealth and telemedicine as a digital solution that their organizations are leveraging to help improve patient access. That was followed by patient reminders, 92 percent; online provider directories, 91 percent; online bill-pay, 89 percent; and self-scheduling, 80 percent.
The pandemic provided an accelerant for the industry to change, Bart noted. “Healthcare has not necessarily been the most effective at changing itself into a service-oriented model. We think it will be a multi-channel approach in working with patients – there still will be those who want face-to-face care, or purely virtual, or a mix of both. Investing in technologies and platforms that allow you to bring that together as an interactive process will be important.”
Almost all providers contacted in the two-stage research project see improving patient access as a high or very high priority, and three quarters of respondent say it’s highly likely their organizations will increase investment in technologies next year to achieve this. Achieving operational efficiencies, demand from patients and meeting the needs of key populations are major drivers for patient access technology, they add.
Value-based care also will put a premium on using technology to provide more touchpoints with high-risk patients, according to nearly nine of 10 respondents. That’s an anticipatory investment, because many organizations currently only have a small percentage of their contracts based on value, Bart said.
“Value-based care does provide unique opportunities in driving toward digital-based solutions, particularly for monitoring wellness, patient education, digital therapeutics and the like,” he said. “During the pandemic, we saw that delivering cognitive behavioral services virtually can be valuable. Value-based care does provide a focus for those individuals under that model, and it offers an ability to innovate in that space that may not be as applicable in a traditional fee-for-service model.”
The Top of Mind Report also listed the following barriers to leveraging patient access technology:
- Competing priorities for resources
- Uncertainty about which segment is responsible for providing technology (providers, payers or government)
- Patients’ lack of access to technology or broadband
- Reimbursement challenges
- Lack of integration with existing IT systems or workflow
- Immature technology
More organizations also are trying to figure how to provide a digital front door that offers a consistent and easy-to-use entry point that enables patients easy navigation of complex organizations. How that will exactly work has been challenging, Bart said.
“When you start working into the details (of a digital front door strategy), what that ‘opens into,’ that’s where you begin to see quite a bit of difference” among organizations’ conceptions, he said. “How do you direct and facilitate an interactive behavior once (a patient) enters into a digital front door?”
Machine learning that bases what’s known about a patient can provide the underlying guidance for achieving personalized interactions with those who come through the digital front door, he theorizes. “As we learn more about you, the interactive experience can be sculpted in a way that’s more useful. I don’t think that’s where UPMC is today or any other healthcare system, but that’s where we want to get to.”
Other tools that support patient encounters, such as virtual concierge services, patient financial experience or price transparency, still are immature and not widely adopted, the survey showed.