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Readers Write: Prioritize the Patient Experience to Turn Short-Term Telehealth Solutions into Long-Term Ones

November 18, 2020 Readers Write No Comments

Prioritize the Patient Experience to Turn Short-Term Telehealth Solutions into Long-Term Ones
By Ray Costantini, MD, MBA

Ray Costantini, MD, MBA is co-founder and CEO of Bright.md of Portland, OR. This article recaps a recent video conversation he had with Ries Robinson, MD, SVP/chief innovation officer of Presbyterian Healthcare Services of Albuquerque, NM.


When the coronavirus first spread through the US, fears of exposure and lockdown mandates kept patients at home and forced providers to pivot almost exclusively to deliver care virtually. I don’t know of any health systems that navigated that process smoothly and easily, though for the healthcare systems that had already implemented a robust digital strategy, that transition was less painful than for others.

Systems rushed to implement telehealth tools, often repurposed consumer video platforms like Zoom, FaceTime, or Hangouts. This was a reasonable solution for the short term. But after more than seven months of quarantine, doctors and health systems are more comfortable using digital tools for care, and it’s clear that patients will use and expect virtual care options beyond the pandemic. 

So how does a system turn a short-term solution into a long-term one? By prioritizing the patient experience. Here are four ways you can use digital tools to support patients through their journey to receive care, beyond a quick implementation of video tools. 

Provide Free Online Screening

To keep both patients and healthcare workers safe by keeping as many people as possible out of high-contagion areas like the ER and urgent care clinics, one large healthcare system made a free, high-quality, online coronavirus-screening tool available to anyone in the state. Patients who showed potential COVID-19 symptoms or exposure would then be advised to take a test. Everyone else received guidance and education about the virus and any other steps they should take for self-care at home. 

At drive-through testing sites, there were billboards with a QR code that, when scanned, led patients to the online screener they could take while waiting in their cars. One executive at the system noticed many cars leaving the line. Assuming the patient had grown frustrated with the long wait, he approached a few cars to ask why they were leaving. Many of them said after taking the online exam and receiving feedback from a provider, they felt comfortable their symptoms were not COVID-related.

It’s a great example of using a digital tool ahead of an in-person appointment, providing real value for patients and minimizing any frustration for those who didn’t need to wait for a full test.

Bridge the Digital Divide

For some patients, connecting with healthcare providers via video was reassuring and convenient. For many others, though, the digital divide has only grown larger during the pandemic. 

When a healthcare system we work with found that 30% of their patient population was unable to conduct a video visit due to a lack of hardware, bandwidth, affordability, comfort with tech, or language barriers, they implemented digital tools that allowed them to more easily access care. Today, patients need as little as a 3G network connection and can conduct their healthcare interview in Spanish or English.

Ensuring equitable access to virtual care is critical for a successful long-term implementation of digital tools. 

Understand what Patients Want

If 2020 was the year of virtual care, then 2021 will be the year of the patient experience. As the coronavirus crisis changed everyone’s lifestyle and habits, new direct-to-consumer competitors gained traction, and in many cases, the convenience exceeded patient expectations. Health systems are increasingly aware of the need to retain their patients, and re-engage those who they’ve lost to these digitally forward, new-entrant competitors.

The good news for healthcare systems is that patients still trust their own doctor over retail medicine or big tech. As one chief innovation officer at a large health system told me, “If you’re in the business of delivering on patient satisfaction and high-quality care, you’re in a better position of fighting off the competition.”

For the long term, offer care when and how your patients want it: immediately, online, and for not too much money.

Help Providers Focus on Patients

It’s not news that healthcare workers have been severely impacted by the pandemic, whether they are in an ER in a COVID hotspot or struggling to manage a household while delivering care remotely. The stress has led to early retirements and leaves of absence, compounding an already severe physician resource shortage.

Healthcare systems that have managed the crisis well have used digital tools to create elasticity for their providers, giving clinicians more control over their time and from where they can deliver care. Virtual care delivery solutions that automate administrative tasks can also reduce the amount of time it takes to deliver care, so clinicians can help you prioritize the patient experience, instead of focusing on the technology of an appointment. 

It sounds counterintuitive, but a thoughtful implementation of digital tools humanizes healthcare: letting computers or software do the tasks that require repetition, precision, and consistency so that humans are free to do what we’re good at: critical thinking, problem solving, listening patiently, and responding compassionately.

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