The digital patient experience: An investment health systems must make

Many industries have made tasks, whether it's paying bills, checking into a flight or ordering a cup of coffee, easier and more transparent for consumers. The healthcare industry is behind, but it's time for provider organizations to get up to speed and improve the digital experience for its consumers — the patients.

[This content is sponsored by Change Healthcare]

The reality is that patient expectations are changing in the digital age, especially as the use of mobile phones increases, improved digital technology emerges and other industries work to further upgrade their digital platforms.

"What we're finding is that consumers expect their experiences in every arena to model the experiences they have, via their Starbucks account, via their Netflix account. Healthcare is no exception," explained Spencer Cross, director of product development at Change Healthcare, during an executive roundtable hosted by Change Healthcare at Becker's Hospital Review 10th Annual Meeting in Chicago. Mr. Cross led the discussion with nearly 30 hospital and health system executives.

Although the need to establish a positive digital patient experience is apparent, healthcare organizations often face several challenges that prevent them from delivering seamless care, offering convenience and optimal access to patients. One of the largest challenges are the silos that exist between departments, work order systems and other IT systems across the facility.

"Patients expect a personalized experience, but healthcare doesn't really have that singular communication process, that singular experience layer that can coordinate all of those different digital touch points or the physical touch points of the patients … The patient experience is largely disrupted because of these silos," Mr. Cross said.

And healthcare executives agree.

One executive, the vice president of human experience at a 17-hospital system in New Jersey, said her organization recently set up a team dedicated to improving the patient digital experience across its network.

Shortly after the team was formed, they quickly realized "how fragmented the [digital] experience is for patients and providers," she said. "We're hearing from patients that it's frustrating, and it's frustrating for the providers and caregivers as well."

Another roundtable participant, the vice president of patient care services and CNO for a 186-bed hospital in New York, highlighted that the digital experience at her hospital is not unified, nor is it individualized like consumers have come to expect.

"I'm interested to see how in the future we can customize the digital experience for each patient. We don't have anything like that [at our hospital] right now," she said.

Mr. Cross also discussed an example of one of his healthcare provider clients, which recently had to reach out to a patient 20 times in one day from different departments within the organization.

"Twenty times … think about that for the patient …  very dissatisfying, right?" he asked.

Despite some of these challenges, health systems are working to invest more resources to implement digital experience tools to improve patient satisfaction.

Here is a breakdown of four digital experience investments discussed in the roundtable:

  1. Creating patient experience teams. Many health systems are establishing specific committees or groups that focus on the digital patient experience. For example, a health system with 50 hospitals across seven states recently established a patient digital experience counsel, which includes its CEO, chief digital officer, physicians and nurses. The group meets once a month to work on an enterprise-wide digital strategy.
  1. Implementing kiosks. A children's hospital in Texas leveraged kiosks to simplify the billing experience and check-in process for patients. The CIO of the 487-bed hospital noted that even a simple technology innovation took time to refine before it improved patient experience. "When we deployed our kiosks the first time many years ago, they got shoved in a corner like they were a bad kid on a playground and they never got used. That changed when our patient experience officer took some ownership," she said. "But even still, the team spent a lot of time grinding through simplification to make sure that it was an experience that a patient's family would want to have … And now we have beautiful kiosks, it just took a while."
  1. Leveraging telehealth. A vice president of a heart institute in Indiana said one large problem his organization faced was caring for cardiology patients in rural areas. Some of the affiliated rural hospitals felt like they didn't have the specialty support they needed to care for these patients. As a result, the institute decided to deploy a telecardiology program, which connected patients in rural areas to a cardiologist stationed at the heart institute via an iPad. The digital health program greatly enhanced the patient experience for those rural patients, the vice president explained.
  1. Exploring 'next-gen' technologies. The director of innovation and translational accelerator at a 700-bed academic medical center in South Carolina said his health system is investigating how data analytics and artificial intelligence can be leveraged to forge a more personalized digital patient experience. "You're never going to build a personalized experience until you figure out how these technologies can be integrated into the health system," he said.

The importance of coordination to drive the patient digital experience

There is no one-size-fits-all digital experience tool fit for every healthcare organization, because every facility has unique characteristics and a different patient population. However, one key aspect all organizations can leverage to improve the patient experience is coordinating data and touchpoints from disparate healthcare IT sources.

Specifically, connecting data from clinical and administrative technologies — including EHRs, registration, patient billing and appointment scheduling — will enhance the patient experience.  

Once these separated IT sources are integrated, hospitals and health systems can begin to manage content and analyze results to create a more personalized experience for patients, the same way retailers have for years.

"That consistent communications layer, allowing you to connect those multiple data sources together … that will empower those investments and boost the patient experience," Mr. Cross concluded.

Overall, patients today expect the same seamless and personalized experiences that other brands have delivered for years. It is time for the healthcare industry to catch up, and one way it can start is by creating a more seamless experience through connecting disparate IT sources.

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