Last month, Manatt Health’s first article in our new digital health series discussed the need for organizations to have a digital health strategy aligned with their organizational visions. Robust digital health governance helps organizations prioritize new tools to purchase, develop and/or implement. In particular, technology continues to expand its reach and its potential to have a positive impact on unique patient journeys. The emergence of robust, validated digital health tools can increase patient engagement in care, improving outcomes, reducing costs and allowing health systems to succeed under a range of payment models.

Customer Service Elements Applied to the Healthcare Market

Let’s start our discussion about digitizing the patient journey with a few assumptions about the healthcare market:

  • Digital health tools are increasingly used in clinical practice and will continue to become more helpful and sophisticated.
  • Payment models are shifting from fee-for-service to value-based payments, and health systems will require new tools to maintain profitability under value-based models.
  • Health systems will continue to focus on improving patient engagement and satisfaction results on the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS), a patient satisfaction survey required by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Net Promoter Score® (NPS), a customer experience metric that predicts business growth.

Patients are ultimately consumers of services. In hospitality, retail and other industries, there are key elements of excellent customer service that can also be applied to healthcare—and that patients and families are coming to expect.

  • Mobile-First Experience. Online platforms such as OpenTable, Airbnb and Uber have long enabled consumers to find and book restaurant, home or taxi reservations in seconds from a mobile device. Finding the right doctor is not as simple, yet consumers long for the ability to access information, products and services when they want them and where they want them. Companies like Zocdoc provide health systems with the platform they need to make this a reality.
  • Targeted and Personalized Outreach. Much of Netflix’s success can be attributed to its sophisticated recommendations engine which provides personalized content suggestions based on user behavior. Health systems will need to deliver more personal, timely and relevant messages to patients and families using troves of existing patient data to meaningfully enhance patient engagement and self-management in care. For example, Providence Health & Services developed Circle, a mobile app for expectant and new mothers that provides personalized educational tools, step-by-step checklists, health trackers and references to local resources.
  • Sustained, Meaningful Engagement. Nearly every major sector outside of healthcare uses multichannel distribution and engagement strategies for consumer engagement, entertainment and education. Health systems must do the same, leveraging the power of online distribution to engage patients with the health system brand by providing useful and relevant content. They must offer tools that present opportunities for interacting with health systems outside of brick-and-mortar facilities. For instance, leading health systems have begun to deploy multichannel virtual care platforms that allow patients to access clinical advice via text, secure message, phone and video.

The Benefits of Highly Engaged Patients

Only by fully understanding patient journeys can health systems provide digital tools that patients actually want to use and that truly improve clinical care. Health systems should start by assessing the current patient journey and identifying all patient touch points—both physical and digital. For each touch point, health systems must understand a patient’s preferences and concerns. This type of assessment can surface opportunities for improving the patient experience. For many of these opportunities, digital technologies can be leveraged to power more effective and engaging consumer experiences.

But why go through all this effort? Highly engaged patients bring numerous benefits to health systems:

  • Better Health Outcomes and Lower Costs. By increasing patient engagement and patient-physician communication, digital tools can directly improve health outcomes and lower costs. Patients engaged in online platforms are both more adherent to treatment regimens and less likely to need costly in-person care.
  • Increased Patient Loyalty. Health systems can use digital health tools to strengthen patients’ knowledge, skills and confidence in managing their care. Kaiser Permanente found that patients using its digital tools “were more adherent to treatments, more satisfied with their care, and more loyal: they were two to three times more likely to stay with Kaiser Permanente than their non-connected cohorts.”1
  • Higher Patient Satisfaction and Reimbursement. HCAHPS measures patient perceptions of care along several dimensions, including communication, care coordination and responsiveness. Digital health tools can improve all of these metrics. For example, Sentara Health, a multi-hospital system based in Virginia, realized an improvement in its HCAHPS scores after implementing a digital rounding tool from CipherHealth.2

Health systems will need to be deliberate and thorough as they incorporate digital health tools into their patient engagement, clinical operations and process improvement efforts. As a first step, they need to prioritize which patient journeys are ripe for “digitization.” At-risk health systems may benefit most from focusing on chronic care management journeys for high-need, high-cost patients. Health systems that still operate in a fee-for-service world may focus on improving journeys that generate new customers.

Once there is agreement on which health journeys to prioritize, health systems must determine the appropriate technology, clinical and operational resources required to effectively redesign that care journey in a way that is not disruptive to clinicians and other frontline staff. Systems should look first to technology companies that offer a proven product before developing tools in-house.

Finally, health systems must continually test and improve digital health tools in practice. Consumer engagement with digital tools is new to healthcare and will require focused testing and rapid-cycle improvement to reach meaningful adoption levels and have a measurable downstream impact on both the patient experience and clinical outcomes.