Engagement Communications: The Difference It Will Make To Your Healthcare Enterprise And Your Patients

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Hospitals are struggling to make ends meet. Uncompensated care costs in 2010 nationally totaled $39.3 billion, according to the American Hospital Association. Government and insurance reimbursements barely cover expenses for some poorer communities' widespread and complicated problems. Recently Kenneth Davis, CEO of Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York, was quoted by CNN as saying that malpractice insurance is so expensive that his hospital loses money on every baby it delivers.

As if all this doesn't make it hard enough to accomplish their missions of providing quality healthcare, hospitals are scheduled to take another hit come October. That's when new Medicare rules are set to go into effect that will lead to lower payments to hospitals that have higher-than-average costs for patient care, or where high numbers of patients are readmitted.

Under these circumstances, many hospitals that also operate clinics and other health care centers must find cost-effective and operationally efficient ways to make sure that patients keep their appointments with physicians at those facilities. A goal is to stop the cycle where individuals fall off treatment plans — or at least don't follow them precisely — and incur multiple hospital stays as a result, with all the unhappy consequences that has for the patient and the institution.

In fact, a recent survey conducted by Kelton Research, on behalf of my company, TeleVox, found that three out of four Americans admit they don't follow treatment plans exactly as prescribed by their physicians. Healthcare professionals say it's even worse, complaining that 95 percent of patients are guilty of this.

When patients aren't reminded about appointments, badly-needed revenue also can take a hit. No-shows not only mean forfeiting the fee for that patient, but also missed opportunities to schedule other appointments in his or her place.

Stay engaged, stay connected

But how best to help make sure patients meet with their doctors when they're supposed to? Like any social network phenom will tell you, it's all about staying engaged with your audience.   

Engagement communications calls for automating interactions with patients, without losing the personal touch that comes with having a live employee calling them about matters such as appointment reminders. The manual approach is just too great a drain on employees' time, and frankly not the most efficient use of full-time labor that costs between $12 and $15 per hour. Automated systems can contact an entire day's worth of patients within minutes, with personalized content about each one's appointment, for only pennies per contact — and they can do it the way that works best for the patient, whether that's phone, email or text messages.

Communicating with patients using their preferred format is a smart way to encourage their participation in their own health. You're making it convenient for them to respond and mark the date as they like, confirming text messages on-the-go from their cell phones or adding appointments from an email to their electronic calendars. Equally important, you've made it easier for them to communicate ahead of time that they can't make an appointment, so that other patients can be scheduled in their place.

And for staff members whose plates already are full, it's just a few clicks and a few minutes to have automated messaging systems use data exported from electronic medical records to quickly identify and contact patients for appointment confirmations, recall notifications and more.  

Hospitals are now adopting automated messaging to engage with patients more efficiently and effectively. That, plus there's a tidy $74,000 in annual postage savings thanks to the elimination of many mailed appointment reminders. I'm sure it hasn't gone unnoticed that the U.S. Mail has just increased postcard mail rates to 32 cents — which takes its toll at high volumes.

That's just the start of how engagement communications can affect a healthcare facility that wants to improve patient relationships, and lower its risks around recurring patient admissions. Indeed, patients are eager for more regular contact with their healthcare providers: Forty-two percent of people responding to our study said they would be more successful in following treatment plans if they received information and encouragement from their doctors between visits to stay on course. And more than one-third said they could improve their routine of following doctors' instructions if they received reminders in their preferred format telling them to do something specific, like take medication. Yet today, 55 percent of healthcare professionals don't provide patient care between office visits in any form.

Stay engaged, stay strong

In addition to engaging with patients to ensure their healthcare compliance, the financial situation many hospitals are in today leaves them no choice but to focus greater attention on collection efforts. Outstanding patient account balances — as that nearly $40 billion in uncompensated care costs shows — are a serious threat to the long-term viability of health care organizations of every size.

Getting in touch with delinquent payors as early as possible is the best way to reduce outstanding accounts receivable — especially in the cases of those "lazy payors," people who simply forgot and who will respond promptly to a reminder call. Using automated notifications that are personalized for each patient account, and that offer options that allow them to make a payment over the phone, represents a huge real-world savings over automatic dialer solutions. Though auto-dialers have a low upfront cost, they require having a live agent prepared to handle each call in case a connection is made. With automated solutions, patients still can opt to transfer to an agent, but only if they need to.  

Engagement is the future

Kim Kardashian, with nearly 13 million followers in the Twittersphere, could provide a lesson for the healthcare enterprise: When it comes to commanding the attention of your audience, engagement is everything.

It's as important to the success of the institution as a business as it is to the success of the healthcare providers who are its backbone. Consider that the TeleVox study showed that only 7 percent of more than 2,200 healthcare professionals believe that they are successfully helping patients become healthier. I think that the dedicated physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses and every other provider with which a hospital is associated would be thrilled to believe their efforts not only helped their patients get well when they were ill, but also made a bigger difference to their quality of life over the long run.

Scott Zimmerman, president of TeleVox Software, is a regularly published thought leader on engaging patients via ongoing communication between office visits. He has been quoted in major media such as Fast Company, Wall Street Journal and USA Today.  And, his opinion pieces appear regularly in national healthcare publications, including Healthcare Finance News, Healthcare Review, Managed Healthcare Executive, ANSWERStat Magazine, Physician’s Practice Magazine, American Medical News, Progressive Orthodontist, Dentistry IQ, 1:1 Magazine and CRM Magazine.

More Articles on Patient Engagement:

10 Keys to Designing an Effective Patient Engagement Strategy
Study Reveals Patients Perceive Standing, Sitting Bedside Care Differently
Survey Shows Wide Variation When Defining "Patient Engagement"

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