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Is the Digital Front Door to Your Online Patient Experience Broken?

Originally published July 19, 2023 by HealthIT Answers.

Have you searched for something on a company’s website, then given up and called to speak to a customer service representative when you couldn’t find the answers you were looking for? This experience is all too common – especially in healthcare. Since 2020, digital front doors (DFDs) have become increasingly popular. And with the healthcare staff shortage projected to continue, and even worsen, until 2025, digital entry points into healthcare for patients are more important than ever.

But for too many patients, these “front doors” are broken and far too difficult to navigate – leaving them either without care or forced to navigate their own entrance into the health system. Technology can be a powerful way to improve healthcare equity and patient access, but a dysfunctional digital front door can create more hurdles for patients. Health systems and clinics must evaluate the true effectiveness of their digital strategy to care for as many patients as possible, more equitably, with fewer staff.

The Great Patient Disconnect

I’ve spoken to many health systems who struggle with having provided patients with digital options to connect, but coming up short when these channels and digital front doors don’t seem to be making a difference. This is the “Great Patient Disconnect,” where both patients and providers are engaged in the healthcare journey and have digital tools available, but still struggle to connect.

For many organizations, the primary digital front door available to the organization remains the patient portal. According to the United States Government Accountability Office, however, while 90% of organizations reported that despite offering a patient portal, only about a third of patients use them. It’s clear that this “front door” is insufficient for patients who expect and need more accessible digital touch points across the healthcare journey.

Barriers to patient adoption or effective use can include:

These barriers contribute to this “front door” being accessible to only a subset of patients. For healthcare organizations who provide care to diverse patient populations, not only do these disparities make healthcare access less equitable, but they increase the number of patients who need to request care via phone calls with already overburdened staff.

Despite the relatively low adoption of patient portals, patients of varied backgrounds are motivated to use technology to engage with their care. Data from the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation’s National Poll on Healthy Aging highlights that 75% of surveyed adults aged 50-80 reported having a patient portal, and 85% of those patients reported using it in the last six months.

Meanwhile, patients indicate that the technology offerings available, like patient portals and digital front doors, are not always meeting their needs. A recent meta-analysis shows, for example, that although patients want self-scheduling and self-scheduling has significant benefits, healthcare organizations’ adoption of it remains low – with one of the primary barriers to adoption being the perception that patients would be hesitant to self-schedule.

Modern consumers have access to great digital experiences nearly everywhere they turn. These broken, underused digital front doors are no longer a viable option to serve patients – who need and expect to easily connect with their care in the channel of their choice.

We need to deliver an omnichannel digital continuum

The Great Patient Disconnect shows that a digital front door is no longer the right framework to meet patients where they are. A front door alone isn’t enough – patients need an omnichannel digital continuum that orchestrates all the points of their journey, not just bits and pieces of it.

According to Stacy Porter, VP of Digital at University Hospitals, “We need to move away from ‘random acts of digital’ to truly empower our patients to be successful.” At University Hospitals, every aspect of the patient journey, from digital to in-person, has been designed to avoid gaps, frustrations, and barriers and instead provide an orchestrated experience.

If you’re concerned that your digital strategy could fall prey to “random acts of digital” and contribute to the Great Patient Disconnect, how can you solve potential issues in the continuum to meet patients – your customers – where they are? Look for points of disconnection like:

  • A scheduling page on your website that directs patients to call instead of offering digital options (not every patient can, or wants to, call during your business hours)
  • High numbers of patient complaints or negative online reviews about the process of scheduling an appointment (indicates points of friction)
  • Lack of visibility at your organization about how many communications a given patient is receiving, when, and through what channels (creates a disconnected experience)
  • Low patient portal adoption rates (could indicate that patients can’t get what they need from your digital offerings)
  • Limited ways for patients to reach you with questions, or for you to reach them after care (creates a lack of trust in your digital front door and adds frustration)

If you’re seeing more than one of these pain points, it’s time to reevaluate your digital front door and move to an omnichannel digital continuum.

Attributes of an effective, equitable omnichannel digital continuum

An omnichannel digital continuum considers each interaction a patient has with your organization and creates an orchestrated journey across those interactions.

According to Jeff Johnson, VP Innovation and Digital Business at Banner Health, “We can’t just be a healthcare company that does some digital interactions. We must be a digital company.” Banner Health designs every consumer interaction with ‘Patient Sofia,’ their patient archetype, in mind – from finding care to the experience in the hospital and beyond.

What does a digital strategy look like when corrected from “random acts of digital” to an omnichannel digital continuum? Key attributes include:

  • An understanding of what communications patients are receiving throughout their health journey – whether from their care teams, your organization’s marketing arm, or your automated outreach.
  • A simple, consumer-first experience for all your patients – no matter what channel or language they prefer.
  • Consistency across your touchpoints with the patient, regardless of where in your organization they are right now.
  • Digital options that empower patients to take action without relying on phone calls or manual staff help.

One key factor in an effective omnichannel digital continuum is making it truly omnichannel – accounting for the communication preferences of a wide variety of patients. Most patients love the option for text or web interactions, but some don’t. Plan ahead for these preferences and ensure that patients have the flexibility to successfully get to the next step in their journeys, whether they use all or only some of your digital tools. For example, offer an automated option for a callback or a switch to SMS to patients who might have called despite preferring SMS or web. Doing so can free up your staff to address calls from patients who prefer them.

Finally, digital front doors can be improved by proactively asking for, then acting on, patient feedback regarding the digital options they want and need. The Great Patient Disconnect is exacerbated when patients can’t reach you, then quietly resort to another method or even go elsewhere for their care. By recognizing that simply having a digital front door doesn’t necessarily solve patient access challenges, and a more comprehensive digital continuum is a must, you’re already on your way to creating a better experience for both patients and staff.