Dr. Patricia A. Maryland: In today’s data-accessible age, a focus on people-first healthcare drives quality, customer satisfaction

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The healthcare industry is having an important debate about data — how it is generated, who owns it, how it is used and how much control people should have over their personal information. Used responsibly, data can help drive important transformations in prevention, treatment, patient education and more. But as we develop ethical applications for leveraging big data in healthcare, we cannot lose sight of the human element of our work to enhance the patient experience.

It's a simple thought, but one that cannot be overemphasized. While these methods have enormous potential to save lives, eradicate diseases and improve efficiency, it can be easy to overlook that behind the numbers is a person with a story, a family, and a life that deserves individual attention and care.

Thinking of the patients we serve as people first has important implications not only for their individual health outcomes; this approach also provides insights for the broader movement to improve quality and satisfaction in American healthcare.

Consider the practice of personalized healthcare as one example of the power of a "people-first" approach. Personalized healthcare incorporates a person's unique genetic and genomic information with their medical history, social and physical environment, behaviors, culture – to include race, ethnicity, language preference and more – and values to create a complete composite of their health. This allows us to better understand a person so we have more information to properly diagnose and successfully treat patients. Personalized healthcare requires us to get to know each person biologically, culturally and holistically to pinpoint the most promising treatments in a faster way.

This has implications for affordability, too. According to one estimate from the Institute of Medicine, unnecessary medical testing and care account for $210 billion in U.S. healthcare costs each year. Being able to identify health risks and treatment options more quickly and accurately will help us reduce that spending and make medical services more affordable for all.

Delivering quality care also requires the healthcare industry to meet the needs and lifestyles of those we serve, not the other way around. Technology now offers us easier and faster ways of doing many things that impact our lives, and technology-enabled convenience is also exerting its influence on healthcare. Today’s patients have higher expectations for the experiences they encounter, the information they receive and the connectedness to care they feel as they navigate the system.

In short, healthcare consumers are savvier than ever before. More than half of healthcare consumers find out the price before receiving a medical service, and 60 percent of patients conduct research into physician and facility quality ratings online. Many of these ratings and reviews are authored by patients, making the quality of their care and their overall experience with our systems more important than ever.

One way we’re meeting these new expectations at Ascension is through online scheduling. In a 2016 survey by PatientPop, 42 percent of respondents said they would like to be able to schedule medical appointments online, but only 17 percent had that option. More than 1,200 providers across the 22 states we serve now allow for primary care, urgent care and emergency room visits to be scheduled online, and we are looking into expanding this option to specialty care as well as diagnostic and imaging services. Patients also now have the option to take their appointments completely online through real-time video consultations with clinicians in appropriate circumstances.

These offerings in turn provide data about the offerings consumers are looking for and how effective certain tactics are in creating healthy habits. Rather than stand in conflict with big data, a people-centric approach to healthcare can lead us down a path toward even more insights.

When it comes to big data, healthcare has only scratched the surface. There are endless opportunities for data to transform the way we view healthcare en masse. But as we think about the future of healthcare in the U.S., we can’t forget the patients — the people — behind the numbers. By focusing on how we can provide a healthcare experience that meets them where they are and strives for quality and satisfaction, providers can gain crucial insights that provide a better healthcare system for everyone.

Patricia A. Maryland, Dr.PH, is the president and CEO of Ascension Healthcare, a division of St. Louis-based Ascension.

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