Effective Patient Communication: The Key to Virtual Patient Triage

February 16, 2021 - by WELL Staff

Accelerated by the pandemic, telehealth is becoming a staple in healthcare systems. A recent report indicates that more than 76 percent of healthcare institutions in the U.S. “connect with patients and consulting practitioners at a distance through the use of video and other technology.” Nearly every state Medicaid program has some telehealth coverage, and private payers are accommodating coverage for many healthcare services.

One area that is emerging as ripe for innovation is patient triage or today, virtual patient triage. This area of the healthcare journey is receiving a boost from technologies that unlock powerful back-and-forth communications between patients and care providers, blending technology, interoperability, and human-centered design.

With patient triage, communication matters

Patient triage refers to the “methods used to assess patients’ severity of injury or illness within a short time after their arrival, assign priorities, and transfer each patient to the appropriate place for treatment.” The keywords here are “within a short time after their arrival.” The faster hospital triage systems and personnel can categorize their patients’ medical issues, the more quickly they can attend to those with the most immediate needs, and the more efficient overall operations will be.

In most circumstances, the number of patients often exceeds the number of healthcare professionals or the number of resources available on the scene. Not everyone admitted will receive care simultaneously or immediately. Therefore, patients with life-threatening illnesses and injuries take priority in terms of the level of care and resources. This reality is at the core of the triage process.

The 5-Level Emergency Severity Index

Most hospital triage systems follow the 5-level Emergency Severity Index:

  • Level 1: Resuscitation – For patients with life-or limb-threatening conditions.
  • Level 2: Emergent – Assigned to patients with conditions that potentially threaten life, limb, or function.
  • Level 3: Urgent – Given to patients with serious conditions that require emergency intervention.
  • Level 4: Less urgent – For those conditions related to patient distress or those with potential complications that need intervention.
  • Level 5: Non-urgent – Assigned to patients that have non-urgent conditions that may also be part of a chronic problem.

For most hospitals and healthcare institutions, the patient triage process is a manual one. Categorizing medical emergencies begins once the patients arrive on their premises. Nurses first interview the patients and/or assess their conditions, fill out the necessary forms, and then assign them a priority level and a physician.

This is where communication becomes important.

  • Patients need to describe their situation and what they are feeling. However, this can be difficult especially when people are distressed and in pain. Patients need the right prompts and encouragement. They need to be asked the right questions in the right way.
  • If necessary, healthcare professionals have to be able to rely on the patient’s family for information. Again, the communication here needs to be crystal-clear and efficient.
  • During and after the triage process, the nurse needs to communicate to the patient what is happening and why, and what the next steps are. They need to reassure them they are in good hands and offer clarity in a difficult situation.

Why providers need to adopt a virtual patient triage process

When providers and triage nurses can begin assessing the patient’s condition while they are on the way to the hospital or emergency room, they can save precious time and provide immediate care as soon as the patient arrives at the hospital.

With a virtual patient triage process, patients and their families can leverage technology to remotely inform providers of their current situation. They can send texts easily and even message photos and video files for a more accurate assessment. Using a unified communication hub like WELL™, providers can begin to respond immediately and set priority levels.

On the other hand, some patients have low-urgency situations that don’t require them to come to the hospital at all. Others are hesitant to spend their time in a waiting room, especially during a pandemic.

Instead of wasting time and effort traveling or exposing patients to health risks, providers can also leverage virtual patient triage in these circumstances. Patients can simply text their problems and questions which providers can easily respond to by providing clinical information and promote patient self-management, or advise an in-person visit for more serious issues.

Virtual triage also encourages a touchless check-in process where patients can wait safely in virtual waiting rooms. To save time, providers can also send links to their portals where patients can fill out necessary forms and make payments ahead of their appointment time.

Leveraging the power of technology

Despite the digitization of healthcare, most providers have yet to adopt communication strategies that correspond to modern consumer expectations.  Most healthcare institutions still depend on in-person visits and consultations, voice messaging, telephone calls, and answering services.

People are widely beginning to understand that these one-way communication methodologies are ineffective. They often result in patient frustration, delays, bottlenecks, and no-shows. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when the pressures of remote care scaled quickly, phone systems became completely inadequate during the patient triage process.

To enable virtual patient triage, routine assessments will also continue to be virtual, with numerous diagnostic practices now possible through remotely controlled technological devices. By leveraging the power of new technologies, healthcare providers will not only enhance patient communication around appointment management but will also reduce staff workload and boost revenue. And by automating routine appointment communication, work personnel will be able to manage higher-value tasks. Automating patient communications also reduce no-show rates, improves slot utilization, drives revenue, and ultimately increases margins.

Connecting patients and shifting the balance of power

The evaluation and categorization of the sick or the wounded will still remain the domain of health care providers. But the paradigms have shifted from provider-centrism to consumer-centrism, where healthcare consumers actively engage in their own care. This movement advocates a heavy involvement from patients around their own healthcare decisions.

Healthcare policymakers, developers, and payers are now working to acclimate to a world where patients are also medical consumers. And since most patients prefer the convenience that comes with digitization, providers need to shift to touchless care. This applies to patient triage as much as any other area of healthcare.

Get Started

Find out how the WELL enterprise communication hub can make it easy to engage patients for a world-class clinical and administrative experience.