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October 8, 2014 Readers Write No Comments

Communicating Across the Continuum
By Steve Whitehurst

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As consumerism continues to permeate the healthcare industry, hospitals must place more emphasis on how they treat their patients across the entire care continuum, inside and outside the four walls of their facility. To do this, patients must be addressed at every touch point in order to fully meet their needs and sustain their satisfaction.

Though increasingly important, many hospitals struggle with supporting patients’ 24/7 communication needs due to limited staff, reduced budgets, and unclear communication expectations. Yet without a communication plan in place, interacting with and keeping patients engaged and satisfied can be very difficult, thereby limiting a hospital’s ability to sustain an enhanced patient experience, increase patient satisfaction, keep patients compliant with their care plans, and build brand loyalty—not to mention it can potentially increasing the risk for readmission.

By creating a comprehensive communication strategy leveraging a mixture of communication services leveraging live operators and clinicians as well as automated technology platforms across the continuum, hospitals can effectively manage their interactions with patients inside and outside the facility’s walls to increase both care quality and patient experience.

With Meaningful Use incentives and other regulations driving the implementation of patient portals, many healthcare organizations are pouring resources into electronic communication platforms that use email or direct messaging to communicate with patients. Although these methods certainly improve engagement, they are not always effective at reaching all patients or providing personalized attention.

For instance, most patient portals are capable of delivering educational material to patients. However, there’s no way of knowing whether the patient actually reads and understands the information unless someone directly asks and engages the patient in conversation. Whether face-to-face or over the phone, once personal interactions are lost, the organization loses its ability to make sure patients are adhering to their medications and complying with their care plans.

Conversely, hospitals that employ high-touch communication strategies, such as the following, can engage patients across the continuum to promote more favorable outcomes, in addition to realizing measurable improvements in patient satisfaction and HCAHPS scores.

  • Live voice follow-up after discharge. One of the most effective methods for reaching patients, this communication tactic enables organizations to know when they’ve reached patients and provide personalized communication to their patients by asking and answering questions, ensuring patients are adhering to their medication and care plans, and providing additional education. Statistics show that patient satisfaction improves when communication services like live voice are leveraged at specific touch points in a patient’s care continuum.
  • Communication to support care coordination. For patients with complex conditions, multiple comorbidities, or who are high-risk for readmission, communication services can improve care coordination by going beyond discharge follow-up to help patients navigate their care plans. These services, for instance, can help patients with medication management (including medication reconciliation and adherence), disease management, and health coaching. As an example, when patients are prescribed new medications or receive changes to previous prescriptions, it can be difficult to figure out which medications should be taken, when they should be taken, and specific side effects to look for. Care coordination follow-up support can help patients navigate these questions, ensuring they take medications in the most appropriate way. Likewise, these services can also identify barriers patients may have in obtaining or taking their medications and offer solutions to help with adherence.
  • Answering services. Inbound services that receive calls from patients provide opportunities for healthcare organizations to address questions or concerns immediately rather than waiting for providers to return phone calls. When these services are managed by highly trained teams qualified to listen to and answer patient concerns, it allows organizations to meet patients’ needs more efficiently in a timely manner, thus increasing patient satisfaction levels.
  • Automated services. Although live voice interactions are most effective for facilitating conversations between patients and providers, automated services can be useful for routine patient outreach, such as reminding patients to schedule and attend upcoming appointments or refill prescriptions. By leveraging automated services in appropriate situations, organizations can concentrate their human resources on more meaningful interactions with patients.

Whether managed in-house or outsourced, a comprehensive communications plan will enable hospitals to continue the patient-provider conversation long after patients leave the facility, enhancing their experience throughout the entire care continuum.

Steve Whitehurst is the vice president and general manager of Stericycle Communication Solutions.

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