Digital Patient Engagement Tools: What They Are, How They Work, and Why You Need Them

Physicians, administrators, and healthcare leaders know that patient engagement is important but defining patient engagement and knowing how to achieve it are less concrete. During a recent webinar, “Healthcare’s Digital Front Door: Modernizing Medicine’s Mobile-First Strategies That Are Winning Patient Engagement”, Relatient CEO, Michele Perry and Modernizing Medicine’s Dr. Michael Rivers shared some ideas around patient engagement, including the healthcare dynamics that both driving patient engagement as well as tools that can automate outreach and engage patients intuitively. These tools, when used strategically, act as a new front door to healthcare and offer the potential to drive desired outcomes like patient satisfaction, compliance, health outcomes, revenue, and efficiency. 

Take a look at some of the topics/questions that Michele and Dr. Rivers unpacked during their discussion. 

Why do healthcare organizations need a digital front door to engage patients? 

Healthcare used to be driven by location, everything from receiving care to making payments was done in-person and so it was easy to engage patients because they came to the provider. Technology has turned this pattern upside down. Patients no longer need to be present—at any location for much of anything—for that matter. Consumer industries shifted quickly with the growth of mobile devices and widespread internet access to expand their reach and give consumers 24/7 access to the services and products they offer. Now healthcare is leveraging these wins to expedite patient communication, reduce manual workload, and keep patients better informed about their care. Furthermore, as patients shoulder more of the financial responsibility for their medical care, healthcare leaders are paying more attention to changing patient expectations and looking for scalable ways to deliver on them. 

What does a digital front door look like? 

When Meaningful Use came along, healthcare leaders from all types of organizations thought portals would create a digital front door to healthcare—even if this wasn’t how they originally articulated this idea. Portals were supposed to extend the reach of a provider’s practice and give patients self-service tools and 24/7 access, and they do. But patients don’t use portals, so the results are disappointing. Digital patient engagement solutions however offer a way to engage patients outside of portals and have already proven to deliver results portals simply can’t. 

Four Healthcare Shifts Driving the Need for Digital Patient Engagement Tools 

1. Patient Experience

Market data shows a disconnect between the experiences providers believe they provide and the experiences patients report. What used to be a one-direction communication from physician to patient has now become a conversation between both parties, something that’s beneficial to everyone and has given rise to new patient expectations. 

2. Patient Access 

As other industries become more accessible to consumers, those same consumers—who are patients—want the same accessibility to medical care. Accessibility means even if patients can’t access non-emergency healthcare services 24/7, they have access to schedules, payments, and registration at times that work for their daily schedules. Children’s earaches and fevers and the onset of viruses and injuries rarely take place during normal business hours, nor does follow-up and preventive care trigger patient memories during convenient daytime hours. Furthermore, phone trees and voicemail are barriers, not access points. Digital patient engagement tools offer mobile-first access to patients 24/7, giving them the ability to complete routine tasks related to their medical care when it works for them, using technology they already utilize. 

3. Financial Responsibility 

Payer responsibility is shifting and patients are absorbing an ever-growing portion of healthcare expenses. High-deductible health plans and large co-pays mean patients are now paying more than ever for their healthcare services and this shift is fueling a change to how patients make healthcare decisions and what matters to them. Now, more aware of what they are paying for, patients are taking a more active role in their healthcare experience. They do more research, they think more carefully about when and where they seek care. Communication with patients is key because patient financial hurdles can cause some patients to avoid care altogether, prolonging care until there’s an emergency, and contributing to no-shows. Patient engagement is key to informing patients of their financial responsibilities, removing unknowns and sources of anxiety, and resources that can help. 

4. Technology Adoption 

Portals taught us that adoption takes place when technology fits into existing habits and behaviors. Finding the right solution, using best practices, and keeping it simple are keys to ensure that the technology healthcare invest in can yield the results they were promised. Ensuring technology fits into the daily workflows for the staff who need to use it is also key to ensuring technology is deployed and utilized. This means ensuring there’s integration so the data is easy to access and act on. This hospital learned that unless data from appointment reminders is easy for staff to access, they won’t act on it proactively and the technology will yield few results. When they switched to Relatient and had data available in their Cerner dashboard, they were able to respond more quickly to changes in the patient schedule—keeping patients more connected to the practices and keeping provider schedules full. It’s saving them nearly $1 million annually. 

How are digital patient engagement solutions bridging the gap between patient expectations and the current healthcare experience? 

Automated patient engagement solutions like appointment reminders, patient satisfaction surveys, reputation management (for online reviews), electronic registration, patient self-scheduling, recalls, and health campaigns can be triggered by patient data in the EHR and scheduling system and carried out without requiring precious human resources to manually reach out to patients. 

Digital patient engagement promises to deliver real results for healthcare organizations, including:

  • Minimizing patient no-shows
  • Improving patient compliance 
  • Reducing A/R days 
  • Driving patient loyalty and satisfaction 
  • Expanding patient access
  • Attracting new patients and driving financial growth 

Dr. Rivers shared a few examples from Modernizing Medicine customers who are winning big through the use of digital patient engagement tools. He mentioned Gwinnett Dermatology, who grew their online patient reviews by 485%  as well as their average rating by 21% and Galiani Ophthalmology Associates who lowered their patient no-shows 62%. 

The wins in both cases came from using technology that’s so intuitive, patients don’t have to weigh whether or not to adopt it, it simply fits into their current habits. Mobile-first means these strategies work from any internet-connected device and because they live outside apps and portals, there’s no username or password to remember either. 

How do I start building my digital front door strategy? 

Whether you have a few pieces of a digital front door strategy already in place (most do) or are just getting started, Dr. Rivers offers this advice for moving forward:

  • Make sure the right people are involved in the initiative 
  • Determine who will champion the project and drive adoption
  • Assess how patients are currently interacting with your organization
    • Which parts of the patient journey are currently automated? 
    • How many patient touch points are offer access through a mobile-first strategy? 
  • Which patient journey touchpoints are most important to automate? 
  • How will we measure success? 

Dr. Rivers also offered the following tips for working with vendors: 

  • Find an expert who can cover the administrative, billing, and clinical pieces of patient engagement for your organization 
  • Find a vendor with a track record of happy patients and industry expertise to help guide you to success 
  • Use a matrix or a tool of some kind to evaluate demos and vendor capabilities so you can be the evaluation is objective

Final Thoughts

“It doesn’t have to be so hard”, says Dr. Rivers of the daily grind of patient schedules, changes, communication, outreach, and follow-up. Providers have spent years and resources optimizing what happens in the 7-10 minutes of the patient appointment but there’s so much that goes into engaging patients between appointments. Digital patient engagement tools optimize and streamline these efforts, reducing the drain on human resources that was once required when automation wasn’t available or the automated tools that were available couldn’t integrate effectively with other systems. The flow of information between digital patient engagement tools and the EHR’s and practice management systems that house patient data is key to effectively streamlining patient outreach and achieving results for both patients and providers and their staff.

Patients want easy access to their healthcare providers, they don’t want to have to dial a number or play phone tag. They also have no interest in retaining yet another username and password. Likewise, medical practice staff want tools that reduce their manual workload—they want systems that talk to each other so they don’t have to dig data out of one system to act on it in another. Doing the work to engage patients in their care is worthy but there’s just no reason for this work to be manual. Digital patient engagement tools connect patient to provider and clinic so clinicians and staff can focus on the delivery of care.