Digital health tools: How the right IT solutions can deliver a better patient experience

Healthcare organizations are responding to the consumerization trend by investing in IT solutions designed to improve the patient experience.

When these solutions are deployed the right way, they can help make clinicians' lives easier by improving the patient experience both before and after a care interaction.

On day one of the three-day Becker's Virtual Health IT Summit sponsored by Lenovo Health and Intel Nov. 6-8, two practicing physicians — Stephen Agboola, MD, scientific director for research and analytics at Partners HealthCare in Boston, and Larry Garber, MD, medical director for informatics and associate director of research at Reliant Medical Group in Worcester, Mass. — shared successes their organizations have had using connected health tools to improve the patient experience. Also on the webcast was Lenovo Health Global Healthcare Solutions Leader Bob Monteverdi, MD, who offered a vendor's perspective on using digital health to enhance patient experience.

How digital health tools are used: Active vs. passive engagement

The ways healthcare organizations use digital health to engage their patients fall into two buckets: active engagement and passive engagement. For the purposes of this article, active patient engagement refers to digital health tools that require users to interact with them in some way, such as entering in personal data or details. In contrast, passive patient engagement refers to digital health tools that don't require patients to take any additional steps, such as implanted sensors that automatically record select data points.

Dr. Agboola said he's seen success with an app he helped develop aimed at better managing cancer patients' pain. The app helps facilitate a survey that's distributed to the patient three times a week to proactively gauge and address their pain levels before they present at the clinic for routine appointments.

In this way, patients are actively engaging with the digital health tool, and Dr. Agboola noted that patients and clinicians reported feeling more connected to one another while using the app.

"Digital health makes possible the delivery of real-time or just-in-time intervention," he said, adding that digital health gives clinicians access to more data to base their decisions off. "This gives the patient a better experience overall."

However, there are also ways of connecting with patients that don't require them to do anything, Dr. Garber said. He pointed to the example of patients who have an abdominal aortic aneurysm repaired and a sensor placed in their stomach to alert the cardiothoracic surgeon if repair is starting to fail.

Similarly, ambient activity monitors, such as sensors placed throughout the patient's house, can help identify patterns in patient's day-to-day activities that could signal a decline in their health, Dr. Garber added.

"Connected health is critical for patients to be getting both convenient care but also better care and that is what I am very excited about," Dr. Garber said.

Key considerations for a successful patient experience improvement IT project

Some barriers to digital health adoption Drs. Agboola and Garber pointed to included physicians' and patients' resistance to change, as well as a lack of trust in the tools and cost. Clinicians want tools that have been adequately tested and are intuitive to use.

Dr. Garber highlighted three pillars to a successful IT project that he has dubbed the three 'U's': useful, usable and you have to develop trust. In other words, all stakeholders — patients and their caregivers, clinicians and payers — must be able to find value in the tool and trust that they are accurate. The tools must also fit naturally into real-world workflows while not requiring too much additional effort from the patient.

These IT solutions give physicians a better understanding of patient health, which allows for more personalized care interactions. "We are directly impacting [patients'] experience when we are connecting with them. After they come home from the hospital and come in for a follow up, they don't need to keep repeating all of the details [about their health], I know all of that," Dr. Garber said. "We try to give them a feeling of personalized experience."

Tips for using digital health tools without overwhelming physicians

Hospitals should be proactive in their approaches to digital health rather than reactive, Dr. Monteverdi said. Today, patients have more choice than ever about where they spend their healthcare dollars, Dr. Monteverdi said, adding that digital health and IT offerings are an attractive component for patients shopping for care.

"The reality is now consumers have taken their own money for the first time … and are trying to make a choice on what healthcare they purchase … virtual care [and connected health] become such an obvious play," Dr. Monteverdi said, noting bedside tablets that provide education or patient throughput solutions designed to keep families informed have become more prevalent in hospitals and patients are beginning to expect them. "When you put that all together, it reaps a lot of benefits for patients, and IT is supporting all of this."

Here are five tips Dr. Monteverdi shared for hospitals to consider when deploying digital health tools:

1. Know what you are trying to accomplish first. Define your organization's goals before you even start exploring digital health uses.

2. Align your objectives top-down and bottom-up. It's important to have all key decision makers — finance leaders, IT and end users — at the table from the get-go.

3. Don't jump into something opportunistically. Do your homework and know the ins and outs of every tool out there. Make data-driven decisions.

4. Seek out compatibility with existing systems. Dr. Monteverdi said it's a bonus when digital health tools can interact smoothly with a hospital's existing IT systems.

5. Work as a team. "If you're not all in it together, the mission will probably fail," Dr. Monteverdi said.

Whether its electronically disseminated questionnaires or sensors that monitor patients in the background, healthcare organizations should look to digital health as core component of enhancing the patient experience.

To view the webinar recording, click here.

To learn more about Lenovo Health, click here.

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