In 2013, 68 percent of U.S. consumers owned a smartphone and 80 percent owned a personal computer with Internet access, according to a February 2014 report by the Nielsen Company. These ownership rates are expected to increase, especially with mobile devices, and are influencing consumers’ behavior.
“Today’s consumer is more connected than ever, with more access to and deeper engagement with content and brands thanks to the proliferation of digital devices and platforms,” according to Nielsen.
Those brands include healthcare brands, although hospitals and physician practices have been slow to adopt online platforms that allow them to connect with patients at home or on their mobile devices. However, in the coming years, patients will increasingly demand online connections with their providers and will also be electronically submitting large amounts of data to their healthcare organizations.
This changing patient communication and engagement dynamic is why organizations need to be prepared with highly flexible, integrated information technology (IT) systems that, regardless of the source, collect, interpret and manage the information to deliver insight that helps providers better manage populations and individual patients. Organizations that have been reluctant to adopt such technology should avoid further procrastination so their providers can become accustomed to this type of patient interaction, but also to take advantage of financial incentives offered by the Meaningful Use of Electronic Heath Records (EHRs) program from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Wearable monitoring devices will become the norm
The approaching “tsunami of data” arriving at healthcare organizations will, in part, be from patients’ wearable health monitoring devices, according to the PwC Health Research Institute (HRI) (PDF). Although now primarily used for exercise and wellness, these monitoring devices offer “useful, shareable information while gathering valuable consumer health data,” HRI reports, adding that “the opportunity is there” to leverage that data to “deliver more personalized care and experiences.”
Although adoption will be gradual, patients wearing durable biometric sensors wirelessly reporting blood glucose levels, blood pressure, heart rate and other metrics to providers will become the norm in the near future. Providers must be able to efficiently collect and integrate this data into their current workflow so they can monitor patients’ management of chronic illnesses and detect when a potential adverse event is imminent.
This capability will become increasingly significant in the near future given the recent inundation of announcements from technology companies that they will be launching tools and apps that gather and transmit this consumer generated data to physicians directly from patients’ smartphones. Without an effective plan in place, this additional source of data could overburden practices.
With EHRs becoming an essential tool in organizations, providers need to deploy patient-facing technology integrated with EHRs and other existing IT systems to ensure that data collected from these devices and manually entered by patients are normalized and assimilated for clinical analysis and reporting. This data exchange and standardization process is still evolving, but new industry-driven collaborative organizations, such as Carequality, are dedicated to accelerating progress in health data exchange among multi-platform networks, healthcare providers, EHR vendors and health information exchange vendors.
Additionally, organizations will need to establish workflows that leverage allied professionals such as case managers, nurse practitioners and physician assistants, who can review the data delivered from these wearable health-monitoring devices. One such workflow has yielded positive outcomes for Kaiser Permanente Colorado, which used at-home blood pressure monitors and web-based reporting tools that connected clinicians and 348 patients with uncontrolled hypertension, aged 18 to 85 years. Kaiser’s six-month study of these patients showed a significantly improved ability to manage high blood pressure to healthy levels for the home-monitoring group, who were also 50 percent more likely to have their blood pressure controlled to healthy levels compared to the usual care group.
Once these industry stakeholders finalize a standards-based interoperability framework that enables information exchange between and among networks, expect the wearable health-device technology market, as well as health-monitoring apps for mobile devices, to rapidly expand.
Capturing and leveraging data efficiently
Before health data exchange with patients intensifies, organizations can set the stage for the data influx by establishing the necessary IT infrastructure and introducing digital communication into staff and provider workflows.
For example, by 2014, most organizations should have implemented a patient portal with functions for secure health information exchange and provider messaging that are required to successfully attest for Stage 2 of the Meaningful Use program. To make this investment truly worthwhile, the portal should also be able to perform routine administrative tasks such as appointment scheduling, reminders and prescription renewal requests.
Once staff and providers have become accustomed to those basic functions, they can start to add more interactive functionality, such as performing online visits and sending text message reminders to patients’ mobile devices that encourage the patients to engage in their care, such as confirming a scheduled appointment or approving a prescription refill.
If an organization has implemented a patient portal only to attest to Meaningful Use, then it should check with its vendor to ensure that the technology contains this more advanced patient-interactive functionality and that it is fully integrated with existing IT systems. This portal must also include integration with an app for mobile devices since patients will increasingly demand that type of access, as well.
Sustained engagement through integration
If consumers can access their healthcare data via a patient portal as easily as they can online shop on their tablets or buy movie tickets on their mobile phones, the organizations implementing the solution will reap the benefits. These benefits are not just financial either. A patient who is more interactive with his or her providers and health information is likely to be more engaged in his or her own care and have better outcomes.
With integrated, easy-to-use patient-facing technology, organizations can ensure that these activated patients who are communicating with and supplying information to their providers will continue to be engaged for years to come.