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Digitizing Healthcare: The Future of Patient Engagement

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Engaging The Masses

Last year, Apple announced a number of improvements to its Health app. One improvement was an operating system update that makes it easier for patients to exchange data with provider EHR systems, regardless of whether the provider supports Apple’s Health Records feature. It’s still in the early stages and may require a fair amount of manual work by patients to fully connect their data to the Health app, but you can see the vision. And, let’s not forget, this is Apple.

In the US, it is forecasted that the number of Apple iPhone users will continue to rise and reach more than 118 million this year. 

At the same time, Apple continues to dominate the rapidly emerging smartwatch market. In 2021, it sold almost three times as many watches as second-place Samsung. 

We are living in a world where millions of people wear and carry smart devices that monitor every step, heartbeat, calorie, and breath, and it’s all tracked in the Health app that comes preloaded on every iPhone. Now Apple is working to connect with the EHR systems that hold all of the patient health data in order to round out the value proposition for customers.  

It’s compelling. If you’re a healthcare provider, it’s terrifying.

The Race to Digitize Healthcare

The healthcare industry has been racing to digitize for decades and has made progress. But it faces challenges on two fronts in this trend towards digital healthcare

Internally, there’s an ongoing struggle to get patient data captured and loaded into the EHR system that is accurate, complete and timely. It’s challenging because data entry is still mostly a manual process. Clinical teams may hate the extra workload and complexity, but paper medical records and charts have largely become a relic of history.

The second digitization front is focused on driving external patient adoption of EHR systems. Web portals and mobile apps are available, yet widespread patient adoption has not yet happened because of the complexity required to use the tools. 

In order to communicate with the majority of a patient network that’s not using portals, providers still rely on email and phone calls. 

In the meantime, there’s a technology juggernaut that already has hundreds of millions of loyal users that are discovering that mobile devices can be effective health and wellness tools in this digital transformation of healthcare data. Apple will continue improving its healthcare capabilities to drive loyalty and users may discover they don’t need all the services from their local provider any more. 

Virtual care may be the future but the winners will have giant networks of digitally engaged users, ready and willing to take advantage of new care models. 

If You’re a Healthcare Provider, What’s the IT Strategy for Engaging 85% of Your Patients?

Convincing people to use technology is not an easy task. 85% of the US population owns a smartphone, but that doesn’t mean that 85% of patients will download, set up, and start using a shiny new app just because it’s in the App Store. The majority of consumers aren’t interested in downloading, setting up accounts, remembering passwords, and learning how to use apps. Apps work for some but not all. 

Mobile technology is beginning to advance beyond apps and into the modality of language. Now there’s conversational engagement that uses SMS and web browser functionality to “talk” to users via smart, interactive messaging. This digital technology is already yielding high engagement rates in healthcare and improving patient experience largely because it is simple and effective. Digital assistants can literally talk patients through workflows like appointment scheduling, pre-visit paperwork, referral adherence and more in any language, without requiring downloads or passwords.

Conversational technology is digitizing complex workflows and achieving high patient satisfaction rates across the spectrum of care. There are countless examples showcasing success but that alone is not enough. Alongside all of the chatter about how this new kind of technology is transforming healthcare, we often see the word “scale” in the same sentences. Obviously, whenever a machine performs a task once done by a human and then does it over and over, you’d call that scale. 

But what about engagement scale? 

Innovators Win by Building Massive Digital Networks of Loyal Users, and Healthcare Needs to Think the Same Way

The healthcare industry talks a lot about shifting from a fee-for-service to a reimbursement model that’s based on outcomes. In order to get there, patient networks must be fully engaged, whether they are sick or healthy. And the strategy must be designed to build loyalty and deliver value over the long term. Technology is the only way to pull this off.

One of the reasons that the healthcare visionaries often point to retail, banking, or travel as aspirational examples of the ideal consumer experience is because those industries have largely mastered the art of wide-scale consumer engagement and loyalty through a relentless attention to the user experience and value.  

Amazon was great for online shopping, but they didn’t stop there. Prime was launched with a better delivery policy, then music was added, then movies. With over 200 million users, it’s safe to say that consumers across demographic segments place incredible value on Amazon Prime — so much so, they are willing to pay $139 per year for it.

Healthcare providers need to focus their digital attention on the high-volume areas of their network if they hope to achieve the level of scale needed to fend off Apple, Amazon, and all the others. There are multiple medical service lines that could be improved through engagement automation, but where do you reach the masses so you can begin to establish that value-based, long-term relationship with ALL of your patients?

Digital Patient Engagement at Scale

There are two primary gateways that have the most potential for massive scale digital engagement in healthcare because every patient must go through one of these gateways to get their care, regardless of condition, specialty, or location. 

  1. The ambulatory care network of PCPs and specialists
  2. The emergency department, which represents nearly half of all hospital visits

For mid-sized and large provider systems, each gateway represents hundreds of thousands of patients and potentially millions of individual encounters each year. Despite success automating the digital front door — the website to find doctors and schedule appointments — often that digital experience is singular. The appointment is made, then things revert to the old way of doing business.

Ambulatory network waiting rooms and the ED are greenfield engagement opportunities that remain largely unaddressed that also happen to be major sources of patient frustration. However, there are few examples of broad scale digital engagement in these high-volume access points.

Digitally engaging hundreds of thousands of patients through the primary gateways, and doing it with low friction, simple, effective mobile technology puts providers on the high-scale consumer experience pathway. Using pre-care solutions to automate manual scheduling, intake and administrative tasks creates better outcomes for patients and providers. Moreover, conversational patient data captured at the beginning of the patient journey can be used later, from point-of-care through preventative care. 

The list of big, successful consumer companies that have put the healthcare sector on their strategic priority list is long and impressive. Incumbent healthcare organizations will face pressure from all of them. Patient trust still resides with their doctors, but emerging virtual alternatives will bring different thinking — especially as the generations of digital native patients age into heavier users of the healthcare system.

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