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Why providers must improve electronic communication with consumers

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One of the chief tenets of reform initiatives involves the notion of patient-centric care. The idea is that patients need to be fully engaged in their care, participating in making decisions and active in the follow-through of treatment.

It sounds as basic, and as inherently correct, as mom and apple pie. And it is flat out hard to accomplish. From the perspective of consumers-patients, we are just beginning to get comfortable with this notion; as consumers of healthcare we often have dwelled as passive recipients, not active participants. And we tend to not engage with the healthcare system until something goes horribly wrong with our health.

From the provider side, this is a difficult transition. Much of the industry has been provider-centric, or organization-centric, or process-centric, or reimbursement-centric. With so many participants in providing healthcare, each dependent on the system for reimbursement, it’s difficult to suddenly change the world and put the patient at the center.

For the focus of healthcare to shift to the patient-consumer, many things must change, perhaps starting with getting information to, and communicating with, the patient. If we don’t start there, then we’re just giving lip-service to the whole idea of change.

Achieving these two basic aspects are still a struggle for providers—most patients still feel like they are being left out of the loop, according to a recent survey conducted by Nielsen Strategic Health Perspectives and sponsored by the Council of Accountable Physician Practices. It involved 30,000 consumers and 626 physicians.

In general, consumers who took part in the study didn’t feel like they were getting the assistance they needed. For example, roughly a third of consumers said their primary care physicians call if they don’t arrive for a follow-up appointment or fill a prescription; slightly less than a third received a call from their physician’s office for follow-up after a hospital discharge.

For getting basic online support, patients report slightly better physician office support. Slightly less than half (48 percent) say their physician office offers a portal where they can log in and see test or imaging results; 42 percent say they can use online appointment scheduling.

However, results of the survey showed discouraging results for patient-physician engagement through electronic means. For example, only 25 percent of consumers said their physicians offer online submission of questions that would be answered by a medical professional. Only 19 percent receive email reminders about taking medications or performing other health measurements; and only 32 percent receive appointment reminders by text. And very few primary care physicians are recommending apps to patients to track physical activity or monitor biometrics.

Results of the survey also show that patient adoption of these varied types of electronic communication has been slow. Much has to do with differences in technology adoption among different age groups.

Significant work lies ahead in building the electronic exchange of information, both from the medical profession side and the consumer side. That doesn’t mean the transition won’t happen; in fact, providers need to expect it to happen and encourage it to happen.

Consumers eventually will expect providers to get on board with the level of interaction they have with businesses in every other area of their lives. Whether it’s banking or entertainment or ordering an Italian sub to go, vast segments of the American population expect it to be easy, online and doable via smartphone—an expectation is filtering up to oldsters such as myself.

More importantly, patients no longer are willing to be passive when it comes to their health. When something goes wrong, they’re ready to get involved. Remember, all this changed a decade ago or more, when patients started coming into physicians’ offices with stacks of information they printed off “from the Internet.” Consumers know where they can find out more information, and they’ll expect their providers to be conduits of useful information as well.

Beyond that, providers moving to new reimbursement schemes will see their performance dependent on how healthy they can keep those lives under their care, not how well they can treat them after they’re sick. The challenge for providers, then, will be building those avenues for communication that get consumers engaged with their health, keeping them as active and involved in self-improvement as possible.

There’s no shortage of ways to engage patients today with electronic communication. It’s time for providers to craft a plan and go after it. It’s your future, and your patients will increasingly expect it.

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