By Deborah Theobald, Vecna CEO, for The Doctor Weighs In
Ask just about anyone: a clinician, provider executive, vendor, or patients and most will agree that unlocking the value of patient portals is a vital element of a successful health system today and in the future. Currently, providers are facing challenges as the adoption of patient portals has been lower than expected.
A March 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report to Congress evaluated the current landscape and surveyed patients and health system executives. The report reveals that while 95% of health systems offer some sort of patient portal tool, only 15% of patients are using the tools in a meaningful way.1Leading health systems have identified this predicament on their own as well and are investing in integrated solutions that will drive operational efficiency and improved patient engagement.
There is no doubt the transformation has begun with our rapidly becoming self-service society. Need to buy groceries? Many large supermarket chains today offer self-checkout lines. Going to a concert, sporting event, or the movies? You can purchase (and print) tickets at kiosks at the theater or online if you don’t want to wait in the long lines. The healthcare industry is no different, and hospitals are following suit.
A recent survey on healthcare consumerism by McKinsey & Co. strongly indicates a willingness by respondents to use online portals to schedule appointments and communicate with care providers. In fact, more than half of the participants 65 and older indicated they viewed website patient portals (65%) and scheduling appointments online (78%) as more effective than traditional methods.2
For many providers, “Meaningful Use” was the trigger to implement patient portals. Health systems and providers have typically been provided patient portal solutions as a part of their enterprise EMR implementation. However, portal design and patient-centric value were typically overshadowed by the near-term necessity to efficiently implement clinical and revenue cycle EMR components.
According to Deloitte Consulting’s “2016 Consumer Priorities in Health Care” survey, health system executives’ confidence in their vendor’s ability to provide the functionality needed to meet more advanced patient engagement goals ranked their confidence at 3.3 level on the 1 to 5 scale.3
Past efforts have frequently been difficult because spending on patient engagement is typically spread across different departments with information technology typically buying the tools, ambulatory departments paying for the costs associated with the program administration, and marketing shelling out the money for promotions.
Consumerized patient portals
Healthcare systems are not giving up on portals. There is renewed momentum emphasizing a consumerized approach to patient engagement. Applying best practices learned from other industries, such as how airlines have successfully implemented online check-in portals is possible. The McKinsey survey results cited above supports how health systems are investing in capabilities that provide value to patients and shift administrative tasks from being done onsite to being completed in a portal online. This consumer-focused approach is driving adoption of patient portals.
The next step for enterprise health systems is to drive valuable enhancements to patient engagement. Changes in consumer behavior do not happen rapidly—think about how long it took consumers, in general, to regularly use airline check-in portals. By making incremental enhancements, health systems will continue delivering long-term value to consumers that will drive adoption of patient portals.
Today, very few health systems offer to schedule through their patient portal. The reasons vary from a lack of standard scheduling parameters across a health system to the potentially high costs and risk of migration. However, the industry is beginning to witness a shift toward further investment and focus on patient portal scheduling and check-in.
This is because the enhanced patient value and operational efficiency are measurable and can deliver immediate value. For patients, they can schedule appointments at their convenience without having to call an office. Using a portal allows them to see what’s available and pick the time they desire. For health systems, it reduces the work of staff supporting appointment scheduling and streamlines appointments across the enterprise. By having the patient enter their own information and verify it on the screen, it can reduce data entry errors.
Implementing devices like onsite kiosks and tablets, or allowing patients to access registration from phones, laptops, and tablets within a hospital setting, can minimize costs for the facility. It saves the hospital from wasting paper, hours of time filing, and allowing staff to rapidly search information on any one particular patient without wasting a lot of time sorting through files. It also means that hospital staff will actually spend less time doing the bulk of administrative work and more time ensuring a better experience for their patients.
Achieving better clinical outcomes
Often what defines a better patient experience involves the overseeing of unique patient needs. It typically incentivizes patients and their families or other caregivers to become more engaged in their own health outcomes. In fact, experts agree that better clinical outcomes come about when there is more emphasis placed on the patient experience. For example, one medical center, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), did just that by focusing on increasing patient and family engagement. Low and behold, the center saw medication errors decrease by 62%, falls decrease by 40%, and lengths of stay decrease by 50%.4
Using a self-service device also seems to help expedite the process of payment for the patient. Patients can pay their medical expenses by simply swiping and putting their credit card information into the electronic payment system. The device can also inform the patient of any outstanding medical balances as it’s tied to a back-end system, enabling the printing of payment receipts and medical certificates. In addition, confirmation can be made for the hospital administrative staff as to whether the patient had already made payments for the particular treatment they are receiving.
This kind of patient engagement doesn’t replace the face-to-face conversations with medical staff when they check in to the hospital, it just allows for more meaningful conversations and better experiences. For instance, if a patient is embarrassed and doesn’t want to answer delicate questions about their health in front of other patients in the waiting room, it allows the patient a way to provide private information about themselves in a safe and private manner. Many times, patients may have a health issue that they hesitate to tell the nurse or intake person face to face. For example, one patient with a chemical addiction felt more comfortable typing in the type of pills or amount of alcohol they consumed as opposed to having to voice this information.
The healthcare industry is undergoing a radical transformation, powered by increasingly adamant customer expectations and a fundamental shift in payment and reimbursement structures. The transition from volume-based to value-based care will require more significant changes than just administration and billing, it will mean an entirely new paradigm for how healthcare is conceived, delivered, and measured. Despite these challenges, it also presents an opportunity to refocus attention on the people served and work toward the health and wellness of our communities.
The focus on operational efficiency and patient engagement fosters a comprehensive approach to engaging with empowered consumers as partners rather than recipients. By building on the evolution of already consumerized industries, healthcare systems can accelerate their path forward and control their own narrative. With a strategic application of value-add technologies, these healthcare systems can realize significant gains in mobility, ubiquity, and immediacy in the short term while laying the groundwork for long-term growth.