The Evolution of Digital Patient Engagement Platforms
How we communicate has changed dramatically within the lifetime of almost every patient. As cell phones evolved from the hefty brick devices first used in 1973 to the mini-computers we carry in our pockets today, cell phones no longer are used only for emergencies. They are now “smartphones” and have become the primary way we interact with the world. With the proliferation of email and texting, we have moved towards a more synchronous style of communication where the ability to send a quick response to immediately complete a task is highly valued. Digital patient engagement platforms and texting are so desirable that a 2019 study showed that 63% of people would switch to a company that offered text messaging as a communication channel.
Digital patient engagement platforms are key to patient loyalty
How do your typical methods of communicating with patients line up with their expectations? As patients continue to expect a more consumer-focused experience from their healthcare providers, understanding how your patients want to interact with your organization and providing them with an effective digital patient engagement platform can make a big difference in their loyalty to your healthcare system.
Here are the primary methods the healthcare industry uses for patient engagement and the effectiveness of these methods in today’s digital age.
1) Patient mailers
Before the internet, providers largely depended on patient mailers to communicate with their patients. Mailers are a simple way to request pre-visit forms to be filled out, solicit feedback for surveys, and send appointment reminders or other communication. One major issue with mailers is that there is a significant burden that gets pushed to the patient when additional actions are needed, such as calling to reschedule an appointment or remembering to fill out and bring a pre-visit form. They also create additional work for the front office staff who will have to transcribe the information from the form or survey into a digital version. While these are typically easy to send out, the efficacy of mailers can produce mixed results and potentially leave your patients with the impression that you do not run a modern practice.
2) Automated phone calls
Similar to mailers, automated phone calls are another simple method to share information with patients. Often used for reminder calls, these offer a more direct way to reach patients. Some may also allow simple interactions, such as pressing 1 to confirm an appointment or 2 to be connected to a staff member to reschedule. However, a large percentage of these calls will be sent to voicemails which the patient may or may not listen to and requires the patient to take extra steps if additional support is needed. Like mailers, these calls are successful at making sure outreach is happening to patients consistently, but they often lack the ability for the patient to interact and can feel impersonal. Robocalling systems are used for these automated calls but are not always effective since patients can be distrustful of automated phone calls and are less likely to answer calls from phone numbers they don’t recognize.
3) Manual staff phone calls
More commonly used by smaller practices, many healthcare clinics have leveraged front office or administrative staff to complete phone calls to patients for things such as appointment reminders, insurance verifications, and appointment preparation steps. This method can save on the investment of an automated phone system while providing a more personal touch. However, these staff members are typically responsible for many different functions to keep the office running smoothly. Therefore, these calls take a back seat to addressing the needs of in-person patients or dealing with the requests of patients who are calling in. Additionally, staff needs to juggle tracking which patients were called and which were left messages. This often ends up in games of phone tag where patients call back when the staff member is occupied with other duties. Because limited information can typically be left on a voicemail, it’s not uncommon that most patients need to talk to a staff member. While patient relationships can be built with personable staff, this method isn’t efficient for either patients or staff and often leads to staff burnout.
Most often used in conjunction with a patient portal, emails are a more modern version of patient mailers. Typically containing links for patients to log in to their portals or to fill out forms, these are more interactive and make it much easier for patients to take action right away. Over 90% of American internet users have an email address, but how often they use their email and their ability to work with this digital patient engagement platform can vary based on demographics and accessibility. For some, their inboxes may be overwhelmed with spam and junk while others may struggle to understand the content and information in the email due to language barriers.
5) Patient portals
Patient portals can be powerful tools to communicate and interact with patients. From managing appointments, eCheck-in, and portal-based bill pay, there is much opportunity for patient portals to be an effective digital patient engagement platform tool. However, according to an ONC data brief that used results from a 2017 Health Information National Trends Survey, only about 28% of individuals use their patient portal. For patients, portals represent another tool that needs to be downloaded and learned. When you account for patients that need to navigate multiple portal applications, logins, and passwords for different providers, this method becomes less convenient and efficient.
6) One-way texting
81% of Americans text regularly and over 6 billion texts are sent daily. By using an existing tool that patients are already familiar with (their smartphones), the barriers to text communications are less than navigating patient portals or other specialized applications. Interacting with patients over text makes it easier for them to receive information whenever it is most convenient for their schedules and helps eliminate phone tag. However, one-way texting is similar to mailers and automated phone calls in that, while it’s a great and simple medium to convey information, the patient needs to take additional steps in order to take specific actions.
7) Bidirectional texting
Bidirectional texting has quickly become one of the preferred digital patient engagement platforms for provider/patient communications. There are different types of bidirectional texting; one is structured texting where patients are able to reply with limited responses that can be understood and interpreted, such as sending a “Y” to confirm an appointment. While this is better than automated calls, this simple automation capability is only a partial bidirectional texting solution. The second type of bidirectional texting is the ability for staff to have an unstructured conversation with patients where they are able to provide support and fulfill patient requests via text. This can help increase efficiency because both staff and patients can respond synchronously and the conversation can be started and stopped depending on each person’s availability.
8) AI-enabled conversations
As we start to move into the future of communication, leveraging conversational AI capabilities to navigate patient responses over text and voice is quickly becoming a game-changer to provide efficient service and support while still creating a more personal experience. Simple automations that use rigid responses are not the same as sophisticated technology that uses open-ended, conversational questions and can appropriately interpret and respond to patient replies. The goal of AI-enabled technologies in patient conversations is to predictably help patients with common needs while allowing them to reply using their natural language patterns, just like they would with a family or friend. The ability to blend AI-enabled interactions with automatic escalation to a human staff member creates efficiencies for both patients and staff while creating a positive and engaging experience.
Research shows patients want a digital patient engagement platform with texting
As the patient-provider relationship continues to evolve, understanding how and when each of these methods of communication is most effective will be critical in helping achieve the outcomes of patient communication goals. The statistics cited here demonstrate that a digital patient engagement platform that uses texting is largely becoming the healthcare consumer’s preferred method of communication. To keep up with their client’s expectations, healthcare organizations need to adopt a patient engagement platform such as WELL™ that provides AI-enabled bidirectional texting and voice to create engaging patient experiences.
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