Staffing shortages. For the last few years, this dreaded phrase has become an all-too-familiar reality. The health care staff shortage is projected to continue, and even worsen, until 2025. Meanwhile, a recent Guidehouse Center for Health Insights report states that 95% of health system executives are expecting outpatient volumes to increase this year.
To weather these contrasting trends, establishing omnichannel digital entry points for patients is more crucial than ever to save your team time, resources and energy — as well as to create a coordinated continuum across the patient journey.
But difficult-to-navigate digital tools and the lack of capabilities that patients really need can create a conundrum where both patients and providers want to connect but struggle to do so despite existing patient engagement tools.
The Great Patient Disconnect
It’s more important than ever for practices to be able to effectively leverage their digital patient engagement and communication tools to lessen the burden on staff. Many are still recovering financially from the COVID-19 pandemic on top of current budget constraints and expiring pandemic-era funding, and are struggling to staff enough people to reach patients by phone.
Meanwhile, with limited staff, practices are following up on care missed during the pandemic, competing in a crowded health care market, caring for large numbers of attributed patients and more.
I’ve spoken to representatives of many health systems who are dissatisfied with their digital strategy. They’ve invested in platforms or solutions to make engagement easier for patients but still deal with high call rates, no-shows and low portal adoption. This is the “great patient disconnect,” where both patients and providers are engaged in the health care journey and have digital tools available, but still struggle to connect.
Despite 71% of providers reporting that patient engagement is a high priority at their practice, data from CDW Healthcare notes that just 29% of patients said they would give their providers an A in patient engagement. And while 90% of organizations offer a patient portal, overall the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that only about a third of patients use them.
This disconnect can impact both patients’ care journeys and the effectiveness of the practice. For example, if pre-visit instructions or other important information are primarily accessible in the patient portal, patients without the portal may not be prepared for their appointments or recognize that it’s time for a follow-up visit. Meanwhile, if patients struggle to access the digital tools you provide, more pressure is placed on overburdened staff to reach them via outbound phone calls.
Addressing the disconnect and improving patient-provider communication
The good news is that patients want to engage with their providers using digital tools. The ubiquity of consumer-focused apps for delivery, transportation, shopping and much more shows that consumers will consistently use a simple and intuitive digital experience. In health care, many of the hurdles that create a patient-provider disconnect are caused not by a lack of engaged patients, but by patients not having access to the tools they need.
Recent KLAS Research data, for example, show that patients often want different tools to connect with their providers, such as self-scheduling and online bill pay, from what their providers are currently offering. Even if a patient accesses your website or patient portal, if they can’t get to an actionable next step, they are likely to call in instead, contributing to the burden on staff. But these patients should not be considered disengaged from their care; in fact, they are very much engaged.
Medical Group Management Association data show that about half of surveyed providers reported an increase in no-show rates between 2021 and 2022, attributed in part to long wait times for an appointment and the cost of appointments. But the 12% of providers who reported their no-show rates were going down cited digital reminders and digital check-in options as some of the reasons for the decline. These responses indicate that accessible digital options can help patients get to your organization and get the care they need.
I believe three factors are key to helping patients better connect with you using digital tools:
- Equitable access. Consider whether your organization has a simple path to care for patients who prefer different ways of communicating with you: web, phone call or digital tools like SMS and the patient portal. Are there areas where a patient might reach a dead end unless they resort to a phone call, for example?
- Easy communication across the digital continuum. Evaluate whether it’s easy for your patients to get the information they need — and to ask a question if needed. Especially for common needs like requesting a prescription refill, rescheduling an appointment or getting directions to the clinic, are information and additional help easily accessible?
- Empowerment for patients. Review areas where patients might self-service or own a part of the health care journey but don’t have the ability to do so today. Ideally, patients can complete all the necessary steps from their chosen channel. For example, can patients take action from the messages they’re currently receiving, in the portal or elsewhere? If a change occurs — such as a patient canceling their appointment via SMS — can they take the next step from that channel, such as rescheduling the appointment for another time?
Considering these factors can help you identify inefficiencies or pain points that might be quietly contributing to the great patient disconnect and increasing the burden on your staff to bridge that gap manually.
Examples of effective digital strategies that bridge the disconnect
With a focus on solving potential points of disconnection, it’s possible to create patient journeys that are smoother and more streamlined and help you and your patients get more out of digital tools, creating a digital continuum of care.
- To improve access to care for all your patients, ask patients whether they’re aware of the digital solutions you’re offering today and whether they meet patients’ needs. If you offer self-scheduling in the patient portal for certain types of appointments, for example, you might advertise the capability front and center on your website or let patients with that visit type know about the capability for scheduling their follow-ups during the visit.
- To simplify communication before and after care, ensure that answers to common questions are accessible from all of your patient-facing channels —such as your website, the entry to the patient portal and the phone tree when patients call in. Evaluate whether the information is available in simple terms and in multiple languages to avoid access barriers or confusion for patients.
- To empower patients, leverage your digital tools to meet patients where they are and with the channels they prefer. For example, you might echo the strategy of one Houston-area specialty clinic that uses its existing patient communication channels to send each new patient an educational video before their visit based on their specific health and appointment needs. Doing so helps meet patients where they are, address patient questions ahead of time and empower them to ask more targeted questions when face to face with the provider.
In a challenging health care environment, it’s critical that we go beyond simply staffing more people to call centers or lamenting low engagement rates or high no-shows. Digital solutions can mitigate these challenges, address barriers to care and streamline staff capacity. To do so effectively, they must be driven by a patient-centered approach that identifies digital dead ends and points of disconnection and creates a unified digital continuum so patients and providers can get to the moment of care more quickly and easily.