How health systems are using automation technology to engage patients, close care gaps

During the pandemic, many patients deferred and postponed routine care, such as wellness visits and tests like colonoscopies and mammograms.

For many health systems, attempting to engage patients to urge them to schedule that routine care is often a manual, time-consuming process, which is challenging because of staffing shortages.

During a Becker's Roundtable sponsored by IBM, three healthcare technology experts discussed how automated patient engagement technology can help health systems improve engagement. Panelists were:

  • Cathi Burkham, senior informatics strategist and product innovator, IBM Watson Health
  • Anna Moore, project manager, patient engagement, IBM Watson Health
  • Angela Spanos, director of operations support, primary care, Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts

Four key insights were:

1. Health systems struggle to engage patients to receive routine care. Cambridge Health Alliance, a health safety net hospital, cares for 120,000 patients. Pre-pandemic, CHA averaged about 175,000 patient care gaps at any given time, where patients weren't receiving important routine care such as screenings or immunizations. The number of care gaps and amount of deferred care only increased during the pandemic.

CHA tried to engage patients but, "We found that with intense manual outreach, we only covered about 5 percent of our care gaps, which was not nearly enough to take care of our patients," Ms. Spanos said. Attempting to engage such a large patient population through manual outreach isn't feasible or effective.

2. IBM Phytel helps health systems engage patients through a highly flexible solution. Phytel analyzes data from the EHR and the scheduling system to identify patients who are coming due or are overdue for care. "The goal is that your active patients are identified for outreach before they slip through the cracks," Ms. Burkham said. After patients are identified, Phytel provides flexible capabilities to engage patients. Outreach activities can include calls, texts or emails — and the frequency can be adjusted. "Our patient engagement program can be configured to flex," Ms. Burkham said. Ms. Spanos gave an example of CHA using Phytel to reach out to 12,000 patients, 83 percent of whom booked an appointment within 30 days.

3. Phytel helps health systems drive revenue. While lots of patients have deferred care, health systems don't have the capacity to contact these patients to encourage them to get the care they need. However, per Ms. Moore, "We continuously monitor your entire population, every day. We automatically process all of the data and are monitoring every single patient." Phytel follows patients to see what care they receive when they have an appointment. Phytel also reminds patients of their relationship with a specific health system. As a result, Phytel's engagement activities drive patients back to specific clinics and health systems. "We're very mindful about not just putting a program in place that drives revenue but doing it in a smart and scalable way for your organization," Ms. Moore said.

4. Automated patient engagement solutions make staff more efficient and effective. Roundtable participants agreed there are situations in which it is important to have humans, such as care coordinators, contact patients. However, participants agreed that "technology can enhance our engagement." By leveraging technology, staff members are able to "work at the highest level of their licensure," a participant from a provider in Texas reiterated.

At a time when it is essential to close care gaps, manual efforts to engage patient populations are impractical. A flexible, scalable solution like IBM Phytel can help health systems effectively and efficiently engage patients and close these critical care gaps.

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