Using Technology to Engage Patients

By Charlie Jarvis
09:09 AM

In the “computer world” in which we live today, patients are using technology to address their healthcare needs in ways that we have never seen before: they are researching potential treatment options online, proactively following up about test results and directly participating in care decisions using secure email and patient portals, and researching over-the-counter and nontraditional remedies on their own through internet surfing. Over the next year, and likely years to come, this increased patient engagement facilitated by technology will continue to change the ways patients and providers interact. And there’s no doubt that this change will enhance patient care—for the better.

A New Twist on an Existing Idea

While the idea of engaging patients in their care is not new, organizations that leverage technology to achieve greater patient involvement are on the forefront of this work. Technology can enhance patient-provider communication, promote shared decision-making and drive patient accountability for self-management. For example, patient portals can strengthen communication by opening up a two-way dialogue outside of the patient appointment. While portals have been around for awhile, the security features of this technology have improved dramatically, allowing patients to more securely access and respond to their health information.

Additionally, mobile technology can enable better patient self-management. For example, medication applications allow patients to store prescription details and record usage, such as when they take medications, if they skipped a dose or if they took a dose late. Patients’ medication histories are then available to the physician BEFORE the patient’s next appointment. This flow of information streamlines the medication reconciliation process, and also fosters continuous and consistent medication use because patients using these applications may become more aware of their usage habits and feel more committed to addressing them. Mobile health applications are readily available and often free of charge. Perhaps as soon as this year, these types of applications may be configured to link to an electronic health record so that physicians can monitor patient healthcare habits in real time!

Technology can also assist with other aspects of patient health management, a key element in accountable care models and another way to engage patients in improving their health. Software is available that can search an organization’s automated master patient index and identify patients in need of particular services, such as an annual mammogram for women over 40 or a quarterly hemoglobin test for diabetics. Once these patients are identified, a healthcare provider can contact them, encouraging patients to make an appointment for care. An organization can even use technology to make the calls, setting up an automated telephone reminder that connects with the patient.

Undergird Technology with Adequate Workflows

But caution needs to be exercised in not putting too much reliance in technology to support patient care. Regardless of what technology an organization uses to elevate patient involvement, the organization must have efficient and effective workflows supporting the technology in order to capitalize on its potential benefits. Without such workflows, the technology can actually be more burdensome than helpful. For example, a patient portal will not be as meaningful if a patient uses it to ask a provider a follow-up question, and no one gets back to the patient with an answer. Similarly, a mobile application will not be useful for the healthcare organization unless the provider is able to easily access the information and use it to help with care planning and encouraging patient self-management. Finally, population segmentation and automated calling won’t provide benefit if a patient can’t easily contact the organization for an appointment or if patient wait times are so long that they discourage routine tests.

Ensuring workflows that support technology, requires stepping through current processes, pinpointing where potential stumbling blocks are and thinking about how to remove those barriers. For example, before setting up a patient portal, an organization should walk through how patient information will be loaded onto and maintained in the portal, how patient questions will get answered and who will take responsibility for these efforts. This may necessitate adding staff members or re-tasking them from other duties. Since a healthcare provider may not receive reimbursement for additional staff, the organization may need to get creative in how it allocates resources, perhaps splitting staff responsibilities between reimbursable and nonreimbursable tasks.

Seek Out Best Practices

Many organizations have already started working on and been successful with using technology to further patient engagement. By searching out best practices, an organization can discover sound ideas without having to “reinvent the wheel.” Some sources for best practices include professional societies, accrediting bodies, improvement organizations and organizations dedicated to patient-centered care. Remember, adopting technology wholesale is not a “best practice.” Creating a strong infrastructure of workflows that takes into consideration an organization’s unique characteristics can ensure the best use of any technology and help healthcare providers realize the most benefit in terms of both patient care and return on investment.