COVID-19 showed us the power of healthcare communication tools

The COVID-19 crisis forced healthcare (along with the rest of the world) to go remote.

Effective communication between healthcare professionals and patients has always been important, but global shutdowns created a wave of new pressures. As a result, healthcare communication tools came to the fore. Many people witnessed the power of innovative communication tools used in healthcare. Consequently, these communication tools are here to stay and will continue to reshape patient expectations into the future.

How COVID-19 has changed patient behavior

The COVID-19 pandemic had a twofold effect. One, it made people wary of visiting their healthcare providers or going to the hospital, for fear of contracting the disease. During the pandemic, both ER and outpatient visits have experienced a steep drop. The National Syndromic Surveillance Program (NSSP) reported a 42 percent dip in ER visits between March 29 and April 25. Outpatient visits dropped to 37 percent from March 14 to June 20, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

The flip side of this decline, however, produced the second big effect of the pandemic: the adoption and utilization of telehealth. As an example, a data report by WELL Health found that between February and April 2020, some health systems reported as high as 50x increases in telehealth visits.

There is also an uptick in the number of patients using telehealth to avail medical services, according to another study. Patients seeking primary care through telehealth rose from 80 percent in May to 85 percent in June 2020. Those seeking specialty care through telehealth also increased from 53 percent to 78 percent in the same period.

Patients want innovation

The upswing in the popularity of telehealth mirrors the rise of other sophisticated healthcare technologies. A good example is AI-driven healthcare. Providers may, in the future, be able to use predictive analytics to anticipate patient concerns. Machine learning researchers believe that AI could potentially outperform human surgeons by 2053. Moreover, IBM Watson Health has announced progress in cancer-care treatment through AI.

Most patients are excited by technological innovations that improve the delivery of healthcare. And now that the COVID-19 crisis has revealed the power of healthcare communication tools that facilitate effective telehealth, patients will expect these innovations to stay in place. From here on out, patients will be keen to see that their healthcare providers have optimized their remote operations.

We should expect patients to be unforgiving with these new expectations. According to research, poor lines of communication in healthcare make up about 53 percent of healthcare complaints. Being stuck on hold accounted for a majority of these complaints. After COVID-19, patients are likely to become even less tolerant of sub-par communication standards. Healthcare organizations expect the pandemic to persist for months, even years. Because of this, medical practitioners need to respond to the new patient expectations by providing effective communication for healthcare.

Healthcare communication tools are the future

During the COVID-19 crisis, many WELL users experienced firsthand how the platform facilitates effective communication between healthcare professionals and patients. WELL’s centralized patient communication and information platform helped providers reach patients through any channel—email, text, phone, or live chat. This allowed for seamless, real-time communication throughout the healthcare journey, despite the turbulent times.

In March and April, WELL clients processed over 18 million messages, providing patients with critical information about the coronavirus crisis. At the height of the crisis, WELL users reported a 78 percent rise in cancelled and rescheduled outpatient appointments and saw a 15-fold increase in virtual appointments.

Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles experienced firsthand the value of digital lines of communication in healthcare that come with a platform like WELL. Rescheduling 15,000 personal visits to virtual appointments seems impossible. But with WELL, the hospital successfully managed the impossible. Cedars-Sinai managed to reschedule all these appointments without adding extra manpower.

Now that both providers and patients have seen how healthcare communication tools can improve the patient experience, and make the entire process more efficient on both sides, there will be no going back.

Providers need to adapt

During the COVID-19 crisis, communication tools used in healthcare have come to the fore. Without them, some providers would have been incapable of coping with the demands of the pandemic. As patients have experienced the efficiency and efficacy of new telehealth solutions, it is crucial that providers stay competitive by adjusting to these new expectations. If they don’t, patients who have seen how effective tools like WELL are will abandon them for another provider.

Contact WELL Health today to see how a full-solution communication for healthcare can help you and your patients. ♥

How texting helps the healthcare industry

 

Texting: It lets you cancel at the last minute, provide TV commentary in real time—and, increasingly, live a healthier life.

Over the past decade or so, text messaging has become a regular fixture in the healthcare industry, accomplishing goals as widespread as reducing no-shows and fighting the opioid epidemic.

And no wonder. Research conducted by the company Dynmark shows that 90% of text messages are read within three minutes of being received, and 98% are read at some point. According to a Gallop poll, texting is the primary way that people under age 50 communicate. And 80% of smartphone owners say that they’d like their healthcare providers to interact with them using their mobile devices, a FICO survey found.

Dr. Yifeng Hu is an associate professor of new media and health communication and the chair of the communication studies department at The College of New Jersey. She says text messaging in healthcare falls into three distinct camps. One is health intervention, where texting is used to provide patients with information, reminders, and support. Another is using texting as a communication tool between patients and healthcare providers or medical offices. And finally, Hu says, texting is playing a growing role in AI, which allows chatbots to have intelligent, and increasingly detailed, conversations with people.

Health interventions

Texting as a health-intervention technique is the best-established use of the form. The first study using texting as a tool to improve patient health was published in 2002. Since then, automated updates (and some manual messaging) have been used to give health and safety information to pregnant women, help patients follow post-op instructions, and check in with people struggling with addictive behaviors—to name a very few examples.

There’s strong evidence that these (primarily automated) messages are an effective way to improve public health. Dr. Mandi Hall, an affiliate assistant professor of Biomedical Informatics and Medical Education at the University of Washington, co-conducted a 2015 review of existing scholarly research on the topic. “We found that there was pretty significant evidence for [texting] interventions being effective when addressing diabetes self management, weight loss, physical activity, smoking cessation, and medication adherence for antiretroviral therapy,” she said.

From patient to provider

Then there’s texting between patients and medical organizations. While automated messages have become a standard feature of doctors’ offices—a recent Medical Group Management association poll found that 68% of healthcare organizations text patients about appointments—Hu says that doctors’ offices are only just beginning to use manual texting to reach out to patients. HIPAA-compliant texting platforms like TigerConnect and OhMD enable doctors to text patients directly and access electronic health records. WELL gives patients the opportunity to connect directly to medical office staff via text, which allows for easier communication and cuts down on individual phone calls and missed appointments.

“When patients feel empowered and more in charge of their own health, they will become more motivated and also more informed. The evidence shows that this leads to better doctor-patient relationships.”
— Dr. Yifeng Hu, Associate Professor of New Media and Health Communication
Chair of The Communication Studies Department, The College of New Jersey

According to Hu, this kind of texting is especially good for doctor-patient relationships. It employs what’s called the “transactional model of communication,” a two-way social interaction in which both parties listen and contribute, and both have equal power and control over the situation. “Traditionally, healthcare providers have the upper hand, and patients are in the submissive role, so they feel vulnerable,” Hu said. Patients frequently emerge from the doctor’s office without fully understanding what the doctor has said or what’s required of them.

“In healthcare, some of the biggest problems stem from miscommunications. Miscommunications can be in the form of not understanding my diagnosis, or not understanding how to change a dressing [on a wound] or take my medication,” Hall said. “How do you disseminate that knowledge effectively?”

According to Hu, texting gives patients a comfortable space in which to get the information they need. “That empowers patients,” she said. “And when patients feel empowered and more in charge of their own health, they will become more motivated and also more informed. The evidence shows that this leads to better doctor-patient relationships.”

Hall says there’s also simply a pragmatic benefit to texting: “Text messages are really just this short way to disseminate information quickly and with not much effort.”

Chatbots

And finally, although the newest generation of health-related chatbots rarely use the term “texting,” Hu says that’s precisely what they do. She cites the example of Woebot, which engages users in a text conversation based on cognitive-behavioral principles. The essential idea is to improve your mood—or navigate a high-stress situation—using the chatbot’s cues. There are also chatbots designed to serve as virtual health consultants, like Your.MD and Babylon Health. And lest you think that all chatbots are intended for patient use, the landscape now includes options like Safedrugbot, which gives doctors information about how medications might affect a breastfeeding patient.

Moving forward

Texting is far from a new invention: SMS technology is about 25 years old. And in terms of health intervention, Hu said, like providing motivational information and check-ins to patients, it’s old news. “Ten years ago it was new, but there are so many newer technologies for intervention. I see fewer articles for texting interventions,” she said.

But “a lot of healthcare providers are still way behind in terms of using new media technologies for communication,” Hu said. Healthcare organizations are just beginning to explore the possibilities of texting back and forth with their patients. “It’s a new reinvention of a not-very-new technology,” she said.

As for the future of texting in healthcare, Hu thinks it will “be immersed into more advanced, encompassing technologies, such as AI applications and medical wearables that track personal health data and connect patients with health providers in real time.”

It might not be called “texting” anymore—the term is no longer cutting-edge—but short, back-and-forth messaging will continue to be a part of the healthcare models to come. Nonetheless, Hu says that stand-alone texting will still have some role to play in health interventions, simply because of its convenience and security: “It’s low cost, widely accessible, and very universal.”

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