In the increasingly value-based healthcare industry, patient engagement has become an important buzzword to know. However, the wide-reaching definition of the phrase can often make it difficult to pinpoint.
According to the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, patient engagement is “providers and patients working together to improve health.”
Although that definition is seemingly vague, it shows how broad the term is.
Patient engagement is the act of patients and providers working together toward the end goal of improved patient wellness.
Although patient engagement refers to a breadth of healthcare topics, one can generally think of it in three different categories: patient access to health data, patient-provider communication, and patient satisfaction.
By thoroughly understanding all of these factors, providers can ensure that they deliver patient-centered healthcare, thus riding the same value-based wave as the healthcare industry.
Patient access to health data
The first factor contributing to robust patient engagement is patient access to health data. Healthcare technology like EHRs and patient portals help facilitate this access by creating patient-facing interfaces on which patients may view their medical records.
Patients who access their health data via a patient portal tend to be better informed of their own healthcare and up-to-date on their current treatments and medications.
According to Susan Wolver, MD, internist and professor at VCU Health, patient access to health data is critical because it allows the patient to coordinate her own care.
Wolver says patients at VCU Health strongly approve of the patient portal, specifically because it helps them manage their own care and keeps them better informed. A recent survey of the hospital’s patients confirms that.
“Eighty percent of people said that it helps them take better care of themselves,” she says. “So that’s unbelievable. Eighty-five percent of the people who knew their notes were there are actually looking at their notes.”
Patient access to health data also helps providers do their jobs. When patients view their data on the patient portal, they learn more about their conditions and are better equipped with questions and discussion points prior to doctor’s appointments. Wolver says this helps providers balance all of their duties during the encounter.
“[The patients] feel that they are more participant in their care,” Wolver explains. “They bring things to their providers that they may not have understood or known about before. I know all kinds of care that has been transformed because of the portal.”
Other industry programs are boosting patient access to health data. OpenNotes, an initiative which promotes the direct sharing of physician notes via the patient portal, gives patients a view into their care encounters and help them maintain information communicated by their doctors.
A study of OpenNotes’ pilot finds that patients value this kind of transparency. The study, which was conducted in 2013, found that 80 percent of patients who had access to their physician notes felt more empowered in their healthcare. Very few patients reported feeling confused by the data.
A more recent Geisinger Health study showed that OpenNotes improved patient engagement, and as a result, medication adherence. Patients visiting physicians who had adopted OpenNotes were five percent more likely to stay adherent to their treatments.
This is because OpenNotes and patient access to health data enable patient education.
“Providing patients access to their doctors' notes and reminding them to read them before visiting their doctor is key to reinforcing the doctors' rationale for prescribing specific medications and dosage,” said Eric A. Wright, PharmD, MPH, a research investigator at Geisinger's Center for Health Research, associate professor of pharmacy practice at Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre, and the study's lead investigator.
By enabling patient access to health data, providers can help their patients better understand their own healthcare. In the long run, this will ideally help patients keep up with their treatment plans, pose important questions to their providers, and explore new options to help enhance their wellness.
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Source: Think Stock
Next, providers need to facilitate discussion between themselves and their patients in order to create robust patient engagement.
Healthcare is no longer a transactional process; providers cannot enter an exam room and tell the patient about their healthcare and prescribe to them a treatment. Instead, they need to open up communication lines to truly understand what is happening with the patient.
Communication can take multiple forms. In its most basic sense, patient-provider communication applies to how the provider interacts with the patient while meeting face-to-face. Providers should remember to be empathetic during these conversations and mindful of patient preferences.
Providers also need to be cognizant of the human connection they are trying to forge. Although healthcare is becoming saturated with technology, and many claim that is a good thing, providers still need to make personal connections with their patients. Studies show patients respond better to providers who spend less time looking at a computer screen than those who do not.
However, as healthcare facilities continue to adopt more technologies, providers will see more avenues for patient-provider communication. One of the most common avenues includes secure direct messaging enabled over the patient portal.
This development has markedly altered healthcare because it allows providers to consult with patients and adjust their treatments remotely. Instead of waiting for a diabetic patient to come into the office, a provider can adjust their insulin doses through a secure direct message, making the process easier and less costly for the patient.
For Susan Wolver, this has been the biggest advantage of the patient portal.
“[The patient portal] has absolutely changed the paradigm and the dialogue from episodic care to care in between those points,” she says. “Different providers take advantage of it in different ways, but for me it really has completely changed the way that I practice medicine.”
Patient portal communication not only helps patients mediate health concerns remotely, but also lets them know when they truly do need to visit their doctor in person. According to David Clain, manager at athenaResearch, this is a significant convenience factor, and helps prevent urgent conditions from getting more serious.
“In a lot of cases patients secure message their doctors and they ask ‘I’ve had this concern about chest pain or a rash that won’t go away, should I come into the office?’” Clain said in a past interview with PatientEngagementHIT.com.
“A lot of times the answer is no, and you can address a lot of concerns a patient has just through secure messages and they don’t have to come in. But in some cases the answer is yes, and sometimes there are rather urgent issues that come up and a cardiologist can say ‘if you’re having chest pains I’d actually like to see you today.’”
Having digital communications lines open lets the patient know that it’s okay and encouraged for them to reach out to their provider. This not only improves care quality, but also empowers the patient to mediate their own care concerns.
Source: Think Stock
The final piece of the patient engagement puzzle is facilitating satisfaction. It is not enough to talk to patients about their care, educate them, and give them access to their information. Providers also have to treat their patients with respect and dignity and make them want to consult with their doctors.
Patient satisfaction is deeply rooted in both patient access to health data and patient-provider communication. Research, as well as anecdotal evidence, show that patients like seeing their medical records and having access to a patient portal.
But complete patient satisfaction also requires a personal touch from the provider. Being empathetic to patient issues is a vital part of booting satisfaction, as well as being sensitive to their cultural or personal preferences.
According to a recent report from FAIR Health, providers need to consider a patient’s culture background to ensure they are entirely satisfied with their care experience. To understand and potentially predict those needs, FAIR Health suggests providers consult external cultural immersion experts.
“Language translation and the use of diverse channels are critical to outreach efforts, but are not enough,” the report states. “Cultural immersion and building relationships with organizations and experts with deep ties to target communities will help ensure the message resonates with each intended audience.”
Further, health systems need to acknowledge differences in stage of life, socioeconomic status, and generational differences. Taking these nuances into account will help providers better understand how to target their care, or insurers better develop coverage packages for their customers.
When it comes to practicing patient engagement, providers have several balls in the air. They need to understand how to engage their patients with the portal and educate them on how to access their own health data. Likewise, they need to communicate with their patients via these tools, and manage incoming messages with potentially critical healthcare concerns.
Amidst all of that, providers need to bear in mind empathy and sensitivity. Keeping those qualities at the root of their care, providers can ensure their patients are satisfied with their experiences, and maintain a relationship with their own care.
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This article was originally published on June 16, 2016.