Strategies to maximize patient engagement and retention

By Steve Whitehurst
11:51 AM

While many healthcare organizations continue to remain focused on what happens when patients are physically in the hospital or at a physician’s office, today’s most successful organizations are taking steps to maximize patient engagement and retention efforts before, during and after patient visits.

Today, the dynamics of the healthcare market are shifting. The days of delivering purely episodic care and relying on patient volume to generate profit are fading. Taking their place is an era in which the watchword is “accountability;” an era in which providers must leverage communication, technology and data in a meaningful way to deliver value-based care focused on preserving wellness and preventing readmissions for their patients.

In addition, patients are taking a more consumer-oriented approach to their healthcare, which means the future growth and success of healthcare organizations will increasingly depend on the quality of the overall patient experience. Patients now expect an exceptional care experience from the moment they first contact a provider, all the way through post-discharge follow-up and beyond. This requires the ability to engage patients not just “as needed” during care delivery, but on a continual basis throughout the entire continuum.

Patient engagement: Essential to success

Keeping patients engaged and loyal to a hospital, health system or group practice is vitally important to the organization’s long-term financial viability. The significance of patient communication in reaching this goal cannot be overstated, and extends far beyond the fact that it costs 90 percent less to get current patients to return for future care than it does to attract new patients. The real value of a solid communication effort comes from the ability to deliver a quality patient experience that alleviates lost revenue because of factors such as low HCAHPS scores or leakage.

That said, developing a patient communication and engagement strategy can be a tall order for even the largest of provider systems. While there may be pockets of skill and expertise in the public relations or marketing departments, for example, most healthcare organizations lack the infrastructure and core competencies necessary to efficiently build and maintain a successful patient communication system. Communication center partners and expertise, on the other hand, can be particularly effective at engaging patients through high-touch, one-call resolution, basing communication strategies on how patients want to be communicated with. Communication centers model communication methods on what works best for patients and physicians, be it text, email, chat or automated reminders, which positively impact three major facets of the healthcare experience—access to care, care delivery and follow-up care:

  • Access to care. It’s been said that you only get one chance to make a great first impression. Still, one of the biggest challenges facing all healthcare organizations is getting patients into the system quickly and efficiently. Whether assisting a long-established patient who could benefit from nurse triage services or helping a brand-new patient who needs a physician referral and appointment, an effective communication center can provide faster and more seamless access to care. Take, for example, the hypothetical case of 22-year-old Nicole, who suddenly develops a worrisome cough and difficulty breathing after jogging one spring evening. The presence of communication tools could enable Nicole to immediately consult with a nurse to determine whether a trip to the ER is warranted or whether she can wait to visit the physician’s office the next morning.In addition to non-clinical services such as daytime call management and after-hours answering services, communication centers also offer patient access to additional benefits such as appointment reminders, follow-through on community or service line marketing campaigns and class or event registrations. This enables providers to deliver more proactive outreach to patients, such as providing educational information around healthcare reform and the impact it has on patients. In Nicole’s case, it could mean getting notifications or educational materials on living with asthma.
  • Care delivery. Both preventive and acute care delivery gain advantages from a seamless patient communication strategy. With respect to wellness programs and prevention outreach, robust communication centers can be used not just to answer questions and contact potential participants, but also to ensure they are properly connected with the desired program. A similar role is possible with regard to communicating diagnostic test results, and even in the transitions of care. All too often, care transitions are fairly manual processes during which communication among the wide variety of stakeholders breaks down. Leveraging a communication center can ease transitions of care by helping to reestablish the lines of communication. For example, Nicole could leverage a communication center to receive her test results via secure messaging, make an appointment and ease transition of her care to a pulmonologist’s office.
  • Follow-up care. With providers increasingly coordinating care and sharing responsibility for the well-being of patients, post-service follow-up is becoming more and more important. On behalf of a provider, communication centers can be used to follow-up with patients about their clinical well-being after an emergency department visit, a hospital admission, or even a routine visit for a chronic condition. Nicole’s pulmonologist and her PCP, for example, could both leverage contact via a communication center to provide her with news about upcoming seminars on asthma care, as well as to check up on her inhaler efficacy. In these ways, a contact center can serve as an important revenue-protection and patient-retention tool.

Bridging gaps, measuring ROI

In most hospitals, health systems and group practices, the staff members taking patient calls also are tasked with managing a number of other clinical and administrative duties. As a result, there is a risk that communication gaps will occur—especially if the communication needs to span the continuum of care. Some of the most common gaps involve providing patient education, educating newly-insured patients and effectively handling unscheduled appointments and patient follow-up. However, by shifting patient communication efforts from staff to a dedicated communication center, healthcare organizations can ensure communication gaps are closed, while providers’ focus remains on delivering the highest quality patient care experience.

As with any endeavor, the key to obtaining communication efficiency and the desired patient satisfaction is to continually gather and analyze the appropriate metrics. An additional benefit some communication centers provide is the ability to generate valuable analytics that can be used to drive processes and shed light on certain measurements, such as increased referrals, enhanced HCAHPS and CG CAHPS scores and improved patient engagement, loyalty and retention, which provide healthcare organizations insight into their performance levels. Indeed, the data can be leveraged to produce highly detailed reports on, for example, the performance of specific service line marketing campaigns or the efficacy of post-discharge patient outreach. What’s more, these services enable healthcare organizations to effectively track revenue and profitability directly related to their marketing and referral efforts by viewing how calls and referrals translate into downstream services and filled appointments.

Making the jump to high-touch patient engagement

Healthcare organizations can no longer expect to survive—much less thrive—by waiting for patients like Nicole to walk through their doors and communicating with them only on an as-needed, episodic basis. Providers must actively solicit patient engagement across the entire care continuum if they wish to successfully compete for market share. Fostering patient relationships through enhanced communications strategies will ultimately help determine whether a healthcare organization is able to meet or exceed its cost and quality expectations.

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