HackensackUMC aims to create the 21st century patient experience with new app

About a year ago, Hackensack (N.J.) UniversityMedicalCenter began its journey to build an app that could offer its patients a 21st-century experience.

Those responsible for the app's design spent a lot of time combing through and reviewing what health system-specific apps look like, how functional they are and which features they tend to have, before deciding on what would go into creation of what Jose Lozano, chief of staff and vice president for corporate services and governance of HackensackUMC calls the "go-to for everything healthcare."

"We understand that the patient experience today is wanting everything at your fingertips, wanting it to be seamless" Mr. Lozano says. "That's what we've worked hard to try to create, a tool that makes something very complicated [and turns it into something] easy and convenient."

The free app, called Hackensack UMC Mobile Access, was launched in early February and is available for iOS operating systems.

Upon opening the app, users are presented with four primary options: They can make an appointment, search for a specific physician, check their symptoms or receive directions to a nearby care facility. A drop down menu one click away from the dashboard includes the ability to check emergency room wait times, hospital news or access medical records through Epic's MyChart app.

The app's basic functionalities are designed to give users the ability to do nearly anything they might want to in regard to their care, through the simplest platform possible. However, it's more difficult than it sounds to create something that is simple, but also works well, especially in healthcare, says Shafiq Rab, MD, CIO of HackensackUMC.                                                                    

"Technology in healthcare has gone exponentially fast, while healthcare itself has stayed linear," Dr. Rab says. With this disparity between technology and care delivery in mind, HackensackUMC's design team decided to build the app around five principals.

"We knew it had to be functional, usable and reliable," Dr. Rab says. "But there are two additional things we wanted that don't get consideration often enough in healthcare IT: We wanted using the app to be meaningful and pleasurable."

Building all of those factors into an app format took great collaboration across the health system, including input from nurses, physicians, marketers, IT staff and expedience specialists, but Dr. Rab thinks the efforts have resulted in a tool patients can use to receive care at their specific direction and through multiple avenues.

For example, a patient who has a preexisting relationship with a HackensackUMC physician, or who would like to look at a list of physicians, can search by name, specialty, gender or zip code. A patient who wishes to make an appointment can view physicians by available appointment times, and by using the symptom checker button, patients can literally point on an image of a body where they are experiencing pain or discomfort, then narrow down by answering a series of symptom-related questions who would be the best physician to make an appointment with.

"The patient experience today is different than decades go," Mr. Lozano says. "Today the patient is more informed, takes more of the initiative to seek care [and] investigate their symptoms, and we're giving them a place to do that, where they can also make an appointment rather than calling and waiting on hold."

Dr. Rab equates it to online shopping, but for healthcare. Users have the option to do the vast majority of what they may need to without talking to a single person, if they wish to do so. There are also advantages to creating an account on the app even for patients who still want to call to make appointments or wait to discuss symptoms with a physician face-to-face. Once those patients register with the app, their information is saved in the system, and they aren't required to fill out medical history and other information when they come in for subsequent visits. It also enables them to upload forms ahead of time electronically.

The app will be updated on a rolling basis as the design team receives feedback and innovates on the initial design. Mr. Lozano pictures a time in the not-too-distant future where the app becomes a part of the patient experience from the moment that an individual arrives on site to receive care.

"A patient enters our parking garage for a 10 a.m. appointment," Mr. Lozano imagines. "They use their phone to open the gate, and simultaneously that notifies the office that they've arrived, their file is pulled up and they're checked in and registered by the time they walk to the office. And on the way from the garage to the office, the app is giving them directions. When they receive a prescription after their appointment, the app reminds them to take their medicine twice a day, pay bills, schedule follow-ups — everything."

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