The consumer-driven technology that could be the cure to healthcare's patient access problem

As the healthcare sector moves toward outcomes-based payment models, health systems are striving to support patients in the most clinically effective and cost-effective ways possible. Simultaneously, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of engaging with patients virtually to reduce the spread of disease.

To better understand how this perfect storm is motivating healthcare systems to rethink patient access and customer service, Becker's Hospital Review recently spoke with Tara Mahoney, global healthcare practice leader at Avaya. Ms. Mahoney is an expert on how on health systems are leveraging technology to achieve their most important patient-focused goals. She discussed the role of technology in delivering an omnichannel patient experience, which is commonly used in what have traditionally been more consumer-driven industries.

Both patients and health systems benefit from enhanced access and customer service

Health systems spend a lot of time and resources on patient acquisition. But without a positive patient experience, those investments are lost as patients "leak" to other providers. A great patient experience is important because it translates into higher patient loyalty and keeps patients in the system.

Care plan adherence is another benefit of improved patient access and customer service. Successful outcomes depend on timely access to the appropriate levels of care, as well as timely follow-up on referrals and recommended procedures.

What many health systems overlook is the holistic nature of the patient experience. It's not just about the office visit or appointment at the hospital. "You can have greeters and great wayfinding assistance at the hospital, but if patients spend 25 minutes on the phone to book an appointment or if they have to wait three days to get a prescription renewal, that's a problem," explained Ms. Mahoney. Experiences like these negate the great care that happens in the clinical setting. Health systems must think about patient experience holistically, from end to end.

The other advantage of enhanced patient access and customer service is increased system efficiency. Health systems must ensure that practices are operating at the appropriate level of utilization. At the same time, they need adequate human resources to book appointments and manage prescriptions, referrals and patient orders.

To maximize utilization, leading health systems focus on reducing the number of patient "no-shows." They confirm that patients are prepared for their appointments and are able to arrive on time. One of the top reasons that patients miss appointments is due to transportation-related issues.

In a world of limited resources, technology may be the best option for some patient interactions

As health systems face unprecedented financial pressures, many leaders are rethinking the most effective, efficient way their organizations can interact with patients. With limited human resources, it's impossible to deliver a positive patient experience every time through traditional phone contact. Some organizations classify which patient interactions are most appropriate for human resources and which can be handled through technology.

"Do you really want an employee to spend 20 minutes to collect a $25 payment? That's not an efficient use of time," Ms. Mahoney said. "One option is to implement digital deflection and voice gateways which enable patients to make payments with chatbots. At one organization, we reduced level one billing staff by more than 50 percent. Those employees were moved to higher-value transactions."

Human interaction is best suited to higher-value revenue cycle situations. For example, when health systems match patients who are experiencing financial hardship with personal coaches, the impact is profound — bad debt and financial write-offs decrease significantly. By creating a human connection, billing recovery is more effective and more humane.

The right technology solutions can augment human interactions, while delivering a positive patient experience and a meaningful return on investment. Avaya recently worked with one of the largest health systems in the Northeast to centralize patient access and automate multimedia communications. "This was a big operational change, but by centralizing access the system saw a 25 percent increase in practice bookings and efficiencies. They now ensure that referrals are managed in network," Ms. Mahoney said.

The omnichannel patient experience is powerful

"First in and first available" isn't always the best way to direct patient inquiries. To optimize patient access and the customer service experience, many health systems are deploying omnichannel technology solutions. This enables patients to interact with providers using their preferred device and communication medium. They can text, call or engage in a web chat. At the same time, patient service representatives have visibility into all interaction modes.

Avaya uses attribute matching algorithms to connect patients with the right resource — whether that's a human being or a digital resource. Machine learning helps Avaya's automation suite understand what patients need based on natural language processing and artificial intelligence-based interactions with clinical chatbots.

"The goal is to reconsider how we interact systematically with patients, whether that's virtually over video, over voice or over chat," Ms. Mahoney said. "If we communicate with patients using the right virtual resources, we can deliver cost-effective care to the people who need it, reduce the spread of disease and improve the patient experience."

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