Industry Voices—Want to improve the patient experience? Start by meeting patients where they spend their digital lives

By May 22, 2019 October 23rd, 2019 News

When it comes to building technology to improve the patient experience, many people think of wayfinding applications or other mobile tools. Those are useful, but there is also a major revolution going on in communications between doctors, hospitals, clinics, medical device companies and patients.

Modern technology has made it possible to radically improve physician-patient interactions.

It’s ironic that the word “patient” so perfectly describes the difficult experiences that we have in hospitals and clinics today. “Patient” comes from the Latin “patiens,” which means to bear or to suffer. Part of the problem stems from the stark contrast between what is important to patients and what is important to caregivers.

A recent University of Utah survey on the state of value in U.S. health care provides an eye-opening perspective on this disconnect. Patients ranked the value of “my health improves” slightly below “the staff was friendly and helpful.” In contrast, physicians valued achieving successful clinical outcomes the most. Unfortunately, most systems have traditionally organized themselves only around what the medical system values rather than what drives improved outcomes.

Healthcare providers are placing considerable focus on helping clinicians communicate with patients in a way that reflects an understanding of both parties’ needs. At a major academic medical center, patients appreciated getting an encouraging message from their surgeon to “Get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow, we got this!” more than all the clinical nudges about blood thinners and dehydration.

Most clinicians bend over backward to deliver great outcomes, but too often at the expense of their own mental health and work-life balance. Great patient experience requires a clinician with a positive attitude to be fully present using words, body language and eye contact that express empathy. This can be difficult if they are struggling with poorly designed software systems that aggravate both clinicians and patients and this frustration can also compromise care.

Well-known futurist Roy Amara famously said: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” This is particularly true in healthcare.

The current crop of electronic health records (EHRs) and patient portals have mostly been cumbersome to use for both clinicians and patients. EHR advocates acknowledge that documenting in the EHR is harder for clinicians (and tough on the patient too), but claim that short-term inconvenience and the billions in cost will yield valuable data that can be leveraged for progress in healthcare.

But early returns aren’t promising. For instance, at a health system using a care automation platform to assess, educate and nudge patients with heart failure to prevent readmission, nurses had to explicitly order the platform’s heart failure pathways from the EHR, even though pathways can be triggered automatically when a specific diagnosis like heart failure shows up on the problem list. It turns out that the health system was not comfortable using the automation because they lacked confidence in the accuracy of their EHR problem list.

It’s stunning that despite spending billions on EHRs, healthcare providers still can’t trust the EHR with something as basic as the patient’s problem list.

As the quantity and quality of data help improve automation to reduce time-consuming tasks, so will the user experience improve for both clinicians and patients.

Rather than have clinicians wrestle with EHRs, health systems are offering virtual scribes and assistants to automate documentation. AI-enabled chatbots help collect data before and after visits so that physicians can spend precious visit time with their patients personally.

While many health systems continue to push patients toward branded patient portals, others are meeting patients where they spend their digital lives. They engage their care team through well-designed healthcare apps, popular messaging apps like WhatsApp and Messenger or just plain text messaging. Give patients the option to choose, and they will find the best tools for their unique mix of health issues, privacy concerns and personal preferences.

More than anything, doctors and nurses want patients to maintain or return to a healthy life as fast as possible. Good health is what we need to have time to do what matters most to each of us.

So it’s ironic that we waste so much time in pursuit of that goal. Time is lost to traveling back and forth to the hospital or clinic. Why can’t remote monitoring technologies automatically provide data from the comfort of home? Time is lost by both patients on phone trees and care teams with phone tag trying to follow up on basic but critical instructions after discharge. Why can’t a chatbot just message to ask: “Did you take your medicine?” “Are you drinking enough water?” “Are you in any pain?”

Time is lost on getting lost. Isn’t there a way to help patients navigate the complexity of the real world? I encourage you to explore ways to use technology to replace mundane activities that are a chore for people.