Navigating the changing landscape of healthcare patient management
The COVID-19 pandemic was a crash course in the digitalization of the healthcare industry — one that saw practitioners, clinics, hospitals and patients strategize in real time how telemedicine and automated touchpoints should look and feel.
Two equally important trends emerged that have had significant influence on the delivery of care and overall patient experience.
One: The pandemic exacerbated existing patient experience deficiencies.
According to the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE), challenges such as workforce shortages, maldistribution, burnout, stress and mental health problems, were already significant issues faced by the healthcare workforce in the United States prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the extreme stressors placed on the workforce during the pandemic have likely exacerbated the situation. In fact, according to the Leapfrog Group's report on adult patient experience at acute care hospitals, in comparison to pre-pandemic times, patients reported being less satisfied with doctor and nurse communication, staff responsiveness, care transition and hospital cleanliness.
Even though the federal COVID-19 public health emergency declaration has ended, the effects of the pandemic on the healthcare system in the U.S. are ongoing. For instance, burned out hospital staff continue to leave the sector in droves, with Forbes estimating that 47% of U.S. healthcare workers plan to leave their positions by 2025.
Two: Patients see value in telemedicine, especially for managing chronic conditions.
A 2021 research paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health notes that with the decline in access to in-person care after the start of the pandemic, telemedicine became an important alternative.
"There is evidence of patients who have been managed by using telemedicine and expressed satisfaction with the services received, demonstrating that telemedicine helped assessing, diagnosing, triaging and treating patients [...]. These experiences include patients with transplanted kidney, diabetes, prenatal care, emergency ophthalmological disorders, couple and family therapies, colorectal surgery, cancer, among others," the research paper remarks.
Taken together, these trends demonstrate how the digitalization of certain aspects of healthcare can meaningfully improve the patient experience.
What is patient experience?
"Patient experience," as defined by the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), "includes several aspects of healthcare delivery that patients value highly when they seek and receive care, such as getting timely appointments, easy access to information and good communication with health care providers."
The agency takes care to differentiate patient satisfaction from patient experience, noting that while the former speaks to whether patient expectations were met, the latter specifically concerns whether something that "should happen" in a healthcare setting "actually happened" — such as provider communication.
Still, in most patients' minds, the patient experience and patient satisfaction are highly interrelated. According to the Beryl Institute, a U.S. healthcare transformation think tank, "More than 95% of consumers see their healthcare experience as grounded in a focus on their health outcomes and overall well-being."
Why is patient experience important?
A positive patient experience is directly tied to access, quality and consistency of care, as well as good experiences with the administrative side of healthcare. Interactions with providers matter, as do processes for appointment booking, billing, receiving test results, organizing pre- and post-op care, getting prescriptions and dosage instructions and so on.
These experiences influence patient outcomes, says AHRQ: "Substantial evidence points to a positive association between various aspects of patient experience, such as good communication between providers and patients, and several important healthcare processes and outcomes. These processes and outcomes include patient adherence to medical advice, better clinical outcomes, improved patient safety practices and lower utilization of unnecessary healthcare services."
Four ways healthcare leaders can embrace digitalization to enhance the patient experience
A healthcare system that uses technology to create more streamlined processes is essential to the patient experience. Here are some key areas where technology can alleviate pressure on the healthcare system and deliver quality care at scale:
It's no wonder that the healthcare cloud computing market is expected to surpass $102.3 billion by 2028, up from $39.1 billion in 2021 according to Facts & Factors.
Cloud technology is an important backbone to patient management systems, which allow patients to access their health records all in one place, from anywhere and at any time.
That portability and access is hugely empowering and can improve patient outcomes as they navigate and advocate for their healthcare. The 360-degree patient visibility also gives providers a greater opportunity to collaborate on care and treat their patients holistically.
2. Omnichannel support
Healthcare can borrow tips from other industries on omnichannel support when it comes to effortlessly communicating with patients across a variety of channels — SMS, phone, email, chat — while maintaining continuity throughout the patient journey. Leveraging cloud-based technologies and platforms empowers healthcare organizations to consolidate patient data, streamline communication processes and ensure seamless integration across various channels.
This isn't merely a matter of convenience; it also empowers patients to become more engaged and hands-on in their health. With the ability to interact with healthcare professionals through their preferred communication channels, patients are granted greater flexibility and accessibility. They can receive timely updates, access important health information and engage in real-time conversations with their healthcare providers, all in a manner that suits both patient and provider preferences and needs.
So much of healthcare remains stubbornly rooted in the pre-digital era.
But why play phone tag to book a follow-up appointment when a simple calendar link or chatbot scheduler can suffice? Why fax a specialist referral, when emailing or submitting through a HIPAA-compliant portal is faster and easier to consolidate a patient's paper trail?
Smart automation in healthcare reduces practitioner and administrative burdens while also providing patients with improved service. Streamline the patient experience by automating appointment and test bookings and reminders, routine prescription refills and other easy yet time-consuming tasks.
4. Natural language processing
According to Healthcare Informatics Research, about 80% of medical data remains unstructured and untapped after it is created. Since most hospital information systems cannot handle this type of data, it tends to be ignored, unsaved or abandoned. Natural language processing, or simply "NLP," turns human language into forms of data that a machine can easily process. NLP can be used to extract critical information from the unstructured patient data found in electronic health records, giving providers more context and details on a person's condition and healthcare needs.
The importance of data protection
As the healthcare industry continues to embrace digitalization to streamline processes and improve patient experience, it is crucial to prioritize data protection and privacy. Healthcare providers are in a position of trust, and it is important that their patients' most sensitive data remains safeguarded. For this reason, it is vital that healthcare leaders verify that their digital tools are compliant with regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to ensure that patients' data is collected, processed and stored securely.
By integrating technology responsibly and securely, healthcare providers can further optimize the care they provide, leveraging the benefits of digitalization while upholding the fundamental principles of patient centeredness. Regardless of the myriad of changes brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic, trust between healthcare providers still remains the backbone of a positive patient experience.