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Readers Write: 2022 Trends: How Health Systems Plan to Meet Top Business and Clinical Objectives By Automating Patient Engagement
2022 Trends: How Health Systems Plan to Meet Top Business and Clinical Objectives By Automating Patient Engagement
by Vik Krishnan
Vik Krishnan, MBA is general manager of Intrado Digital Workflows of Omaha, NE.
With hospitals and health systems continuing to face both staffing and supply shortages, many experts are hoping that 2022 will provide some relief, especially if the COVID pandemic finally enters its endemic phase. This will allow healthcare leaders, including health IT executives, to address other crucial priorities. And when it comes to next year’s objectives, enhancing the patient experience ranks at the top of the list, according to 91% of respondents in a recent Intrado survey administered to College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) members. Other financial and operational priorities included increasing visit volumes (cited by 68%) and reducing burdens on personnel (49%).
Given these priorities, it isn’t surprising that in the same survey, 51% of healthcare IT executives stated they planned to invest in systems that make it easy to communicate with patients via SMS for different workflows including scheduling, reminders, recalls, referrals, and other patient engagement needs. This can be accomplished using automated, digital technology. The most advanced engagement platforms have deep EHR integration, include chat bot technology, and enable two-way SMS communications in real time between health systems and patients. Chat bot technology, in particular, delivers human-like interaction to patients seeking answers to commonly asked questions without requiring the direct engagement of a staff member. Two-way communication via text message allows patients to schedule, confirm, and/or reschedule appointments when it is most convenient for them.
The majority of respondents (83%) also report that they already use their patient engagement solution to automate basic appointment reminders. However, less than one-third (30%) offer two-way, SMS-based self-scheduling to their patients. This is significant for two reasons. First, SMS is the patient-preferred communications channel, providing a simple, convenient means of engaging with patients. In addition, offering self-scheduling via SMS can positively affect each of the health system leaders’ top objectives, including improving the patient experience and bolstering revenue through increased visit volumes, fewer no-shows, and reducing the burden on call center staff. Perhaps that’s why 47% said they plan to automate appointment self-scheduling or rescheduling directly from SMS messages in the future.
Given the latest advancements in automated patient engagement technology, health systems need to raise their expectations of these platforms and how they can meet their goals. Healthcare organizations will realize gains by leveraging their patient engagement solution for more than appointment scheduling and reminders. This includes a wide variety of tasks that address gaps in care and boost revenue. For instance, just 19% of surveyed executives currently use their engagement tool to manage referrals, even though this area contributes heavily to revenue leakage, impacts quality of care and consumes vast call center resources. And only 38% use digital engagement for pre-procedure patient communications, including, for example, sharing instructions on how patients should prepare for procedures like colonoscopies.
Knowing that providers and support staff devote significant amounts of time to inputting patient data and maintaining EHRs, healthcare IT executives are looking for opportunities to streamline these efforts. In fact, of the respondents who did not plan to automate patient engagement in 2022, 37% expressed concerns that doing so would place even more of a burden on the end user and IT resources. However, certain digital engagement platforms deeply integrate with the EHR the health system already uses. This eliminates the need for manual input by writing patient engagement activities from and directly back into the EHR.
Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed stated that the level of EHR integration offered is among the three key factors they consider when evaluating a potential IT investment. This answer ranked higher than other important considerations like cost, ROI and ease of deployment. Plus, 85% of responding executives said they want the EHR to serve as the “single source of truth” for all patient data, including the documentation of patient engagement activities, responses, and reporting.
Hospitals and health systems have invested heavily in patient portals in response to government mandates requiring transparent access and sharing of healthcare data with patients. This explains why 60% of surveyed healthcare IT professionals reported their institution relies on a portal for all patient engagement needs. And while patient portals do contain valuable information for patients, low portal adoption rates make them a poor choice as a sole communication method. A better solution is complementing the portal with a robust, EHR-integrated patient engagement platform that delivers information and education when and where it is most convenient for the patient—through SMS, email, or phone.
Here’s a practical example that demonstrates the value of having a complementary engagement solution. During the height of the pandemic, in early 2021, demand for the COVID-19 vaccine was so high that the patient portal of one New York-based health system crashed due to the number of patients logging on at the same time to schedule a vaccine appointment. Since the health system also deployed an automated patient engagement tool using two-way SMS outreach, it was still able to bridge the gap and continue to offer patients the ability to schedule and reschedule their COVID-19 vaccines.
This two-pronged approach gives healthcare providers and patients ultimate flexibility. Patients can use the portal for activities like reviewing their health records or downloading test results, while healthcare organizations can deploy automated patient engagement technology to reach patients in real time and in the patient’s preferred communication channel.
The use of automated, digital engagement not only improves the patient experience, it also promotes better health outcomes. Patients are far more likely to engage, schedule an appointment, and adhere to the recommended care plan when they can self-schedule their appointment and easily text a question to providers. SMS patient engagement featuring live chat, in particular, puts an end to cumbersome phone trees and waiting on hold, creating efficiencies for staff, too.
Based on these findings, healthcare IT executives clearly understand the advantages of automating patient engagement and plan to invest in these solutions in the future. Whether it is accomplished via a new solution or applying new workflows to an existing platform, automation of many patient communication tasks can benefit health systems and patients alike.