5 Principles to Improve the Patient Experience

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Health care providers are now trying to leverage the ever-expanding array of digital technologies to enhance the patient experience. But in doing so, they must remember that patients are consumers — a reality that providers have often ignored in the past. But as they digitize processes, provider should keep in mind that while tech advances are creating opportunities to deliver exceptional consumer experiences, creating such experience involves more than applying technology.

A focus on improving the consumer experience and leveraging digital technologies as a foundation for enhancing that experience has been a modest priority for health systems. Recently, however, this focus has become an urgent strategic imperative. Providers note that consumers’ expectations of health care services are rising. They are watching with concern as new entrants, with well-developed digital capabilities — retailers, technology startups, companies based on new models of care, and pharmacies — step up to serve the increasingly demanding consumer. A recent Deloitte-Scottsdale Institute survey of health systems’ digital transformation initiatives found that 92% of health systems cited consumer satisfaction and engagement as a top goal of their investments.

Drawing from the impressive customer-oriented digital capabilities offered by financial services, retail, and travel companies, care providers now offer several mobile device-based digital services such as locating a doctor, renewing a prescription, supporting telehealth visits, accessing test results, scheduling an appointment, and paying your deductible. These offerings are the result of providers’ efforts to create what’s been dubbed in the industry a “digital front door”: using technology to improve patients’ experiences at every touchpoint in their journey — from finding a doctor to booking an appointment to obtaining any needed follow-up care.

As providers strive to improve the patient experience, they should keep in mind the following five principles:

1. Patients Are Consumers

In health care, the terms patient and consumer were often seen as only loosely related. A patient is the term applied to a person who is receiving health care. A consumer is a person who makes a decision about obtaining a good or a service and then proceeds (or not) to obtain it.

Health care providers have traditionally been concerned with patients but not with consumers. Many providers abhorred the word “consumer” or “customer,” feeling that the term cheapened their skills and importance. The result has been an emphasis in medical care on the quality of the technical aspects of care (diagnosis and treatment) and an almost denigration of the consumer aspects of health and health care (convenience, low cost, and friendly).

However, patients are consumers all the time when they are making all sorts of decisions about their health and health care — e.g., whether to seek additional care, change physicians, take their medications, or stop smoking. As health care progressively moves to value-based care, where reimbursement is tied to outcomes and patient satisfaction, providers will be held accountable for the health-related decisions of consumers.

Health systems are only belatedly recognizing the need to provide great medical care and a terrific consumer experience — that performing poorly in one role will impact performance in the other. The medical care may be world class, but if the experience is dreadful, the patient may seek care elsewhere or inform friends and family that they should avoid a condescending physician. The clinician may have developed a great plan for patients to help them manage a chronic disease, but if the motivational support is lackluster and the process of scheduling routine follow-up appointments is convoluted, adherence will likely fall by the wayside.

2. The Consumer Experience Is More than Technology

Health systems should recognize that, as is true for any superb consumer experience, digital capabilities are necessary but insufficient to meeting the needs of the consumer/patient. Consumers expect more than the ability to use their mobile device to make an appointment to see a physician; they expect to make the appointment for the time and location of their choosing, with the clinician of their choosing, and within a reasonable timeframe. The consumer expects more than the ability to use an electronic-health-records portal to look at a dozen blood test results they don’t understand; they expect to be informed if they are OK, what should they focus on, and what should happen next.

Consumers judge service organizations on the basis on the performance of a small number of processes. A restaurant is judged based on the processes of menu design, food preparation and waiter service. A consumer/patient judges a provider based on the accessibility of care, the technical and human components of care delivery, and the management of payment for care. A superb consumer experience requires the thoughtful analyses of these core processes and the skilled application of technology, process change, culture change and the strengthening of accountability.

3. The Range of Consumer/Patient-Centric Processes Is Very Broad

Most of providers’ focus on using digital tools to improve the patient/consumer experience has centered on finding a physician and visiting his or her office. However, the consumer/patient experience encompasses an extensive range of interactions patients have with many venues of care across the health care ecosystem. The interactions occur when visiting a family member in an intensive care unit (ICU), in the discussions of possible medication side effects, during the conversation with a specialist about clinical trial opportunities, and while asking a volunteer about directions to the clinical laboratory.

Advances in sensors, mobile devices, and telehealth technologies will allow the locations of care and health management to extend well beyond traditional facilities. Courtesy of the pandemic, telehealth has gone from being an afterthought for providers to a core means of accessing care. Many health systems are piloting delivering care at a patient’s home that has been traditionally delivered at a hospital; care is centered on conditions with defined treatment protocols such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and community-acquired pneumonia. Testing traditionally performed at a physician’s office is increasingly being done at home; examples include tests for colon cancer screening, genome composition, and microbiome composition.

These new venues of care bring new opportunities and challenges for the patient/consumer experience, including processes such as providing technical support for wearable devices, supporting the logistics of specimen collection from a home colon-cancer test, and ensuring high-quality remote physician coverage of a patient being cared for pneumonia at home.

4. Tech Advances Create Opportunities to Deliver Exceptional Experiences

Consumers expect that health care will leverage advances in technology just as other industries do. Artificial intelligence has made cars safer. Mobile devices have eased the processes of managing flights and checking accounts.

Borrowing from the experiences and know-how of other consumer industries, providers will use data about a consumer to help tailor his or her care and other interactions related to his or her health. The tailoring will leverage data from the electronic health record, social determinants of health, and patient-reported outcomes to personalize messages, treatment options, health maintenance suggestions, and lifestyle-change programs.

Clinical and administrative processes leveraging AI-based process automation will be more intelligent. For example, today many health care digital applications enable a consumer to find and book an appointment, but the consumer must do the searching for availability. In the next generation, the applications will suggest appointment times and locations and suggest whether the appointment can be virtual or in person.

Providers also need to consider how they will employ the expanding array of potent wearable technologies to help create a digitally based experience. Indeed, there has been an explosion in the use of wearable devices, many of which use increasingly sophisticated sensors and artificial intelligence, to measure and help manage diabetes, heart disease, and neurocognitive disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Digital therapies are also now available for mental health afflictions such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

5. Be Careful about the Meaning of Terms in Strategy Discussions

The terms “patient” and “consumer” sit at the foundation of the experience discussion. As we discussed, these terms have had traditional meanings — meanings which implied that a person was one or the other but not both simultaneously. That view of the terms blinded the strategy discussion to the reality that a person is both a patient and a consumer at the same time.

Care providers’ use of the term “digital front door” can also misdirect the strategy discussion. It implies that care needs a building and is reactive, beginning when the consumer rings the doorbell. The phrase “journey to health” may be a better term. This phrase is clear about the goal for the person who is a consumer and a patient. And the phrase does not blend the mechanics with the goal — mechanics that can quickly become an anachronism.

When industries take the first steps to digitize, they often create the electronic equivalent of their paper, physical processes. The electronic health record was initially (and is still today) a computerized paper medical record. Automated teller machines were just that: an electronic replacement of the human teller. While using a name or term to suggest that an electronic process is the equivalent of a physical one may be the most straightforward way to introduce new technology to consumers, that approach has a downside. It can hinder an organization’s ability to see the possibilities of digital technologies and the magnitude and complexity of the patient/consumer experience.

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