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How MedStar Health Balances Consumer and Patient Engagement

In MedStar Health's vision to reimagine patient engagement, physicians started to look at their patients as consumers, and began offering services to fully enhance patient satisfaction.

By Sara Heath

A change is happening in healthcare. Providers no longer think of their patients as singular appointments and are implementing better patient engagement strategies that target effective, efficient, and consistent patient access to care.

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At MedStar Health, a nonprofit community health system serving the Washington D.C. and Baltimore area, hospital leaders see this change as a shift in how they view the patient.

Patients now act more like consumers, said Michael Ruiz, vice president and chief digital officer for MedStar Health, in a recent interview with PatientEngagementHIT.com. Because of that, healthcare professionals need to focus on improving consumer satisfaction.

“MedStar has made a significant investment in really thinking about how we reimagine how we engage with patients based on the expectations that patients – really consumers – have today,” Ruiz stated.

When refocusing its patient engagement strategies, Ruiz and others at MedStar began considering how patients interact at Starbucks when they order their coffee, or when they stop into Target to do their grocery shopping.

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Considering those kinds of satisfaction tactics has led the health system to its latest patient engagement strategies.

“Consumer expectations have really increased,” Ruiz claimed. “Your expectation when you go to a healthcare system is that I should be able to find the doctor I need, get the appointment that I require, be able to get my way to that office in the most effective way possible, see that doctor with the smallest amount of wait, and be able to have an exceptional experience where I walk away from it having my issue resolved.”

Health systems all over the country have been approaching a similar goal, and have turned to digital strategies to reach it. Patient portals, for instance, have played a great role in helping to keep patients engaged, and have served their needs particularly through secure messaging and appointment scheduling functions.

But organizations can go a step further with those tools, Ruiz said, and can implement new approaches to even better serve patient needs. For Ruiz, bettering patient satisfaction is about meeting the patient’s exact needs on an individual scale.

“So the challenge that we run into is that just making online appointments available isn’t sufficient because we leave it to the patient to self-select who they need to see,” he noted.

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Sometimes patients aren’t seeing the right doctor for their particular ailment. For instance, a patient with a shoulder injury shouldn’t see an orthopedist who specializes in knees. Directing the patient to the proper orthopedist is critical for patient satisfaction.

“If we don’t have a good mechanism to match the patient’s needs with the doctor’s capabilities, we run the chance of having a patient showing up and being seen by the wrong doctor,” Ruiz continued. “So what we want to do is kind of inverse that paradigm of, if we get it right the first time, we create this win-win situation.”

It is not enough to simply match patients with the right provider, either. Healthcare organizations need to ensure that they continue patient satisfaction efforts throughout the entire care encounter.

At MedStar, this means making sure patients aren’t spending too much time in the waiting room. By identifying which practices are above capacity, and which can take on more patients, Ruiz said the health system can redistribute their patients to make sure they are going to the right place where they will be most satisfied.

“So if we can go ahead and create a mechanism then not only is it a win-win, but getting the right patient to the right doctor is a win-win-win,” Ruiz asserted. “When we get the right patient to the right doctor so that they have the best experience where they don’t have to wait and the doctors are all equally productive, that’s kind of the holy grail of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

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This will all lead to increased operational efficiency, Ruiz explained. By first identifying where the practice can improve patient experience, health system leaders can develop plans to optimize those strategies.

“When we think about how we’re implementing solutions, we kind of think of them in a lifecycle that starts with, let’s do something first that improves the experience,” Ruiz said. “Once we have a better experience, let’s think about more effective ways of being able to deliver that experience. And then, lastly, how do we create greater efficiencies in how those experiences are delivered?”

MedStar has recently employed several strategies to make these improved experiences even more efficient. Through more mainstream modalities like telehealth and online appointment scheduling, the health system has gotten its feet wet in the consumer satisfaction waters.

The health system is planning to take it step further, too, Ruiz said. MedStar has recently partnered with Uber to help patients in hard-to-reach places get transportation to their healthcare visits, and Kyruus to make sure patients are seeing the right doctor for their specific needs.

While these services are certainly patient-facing, they also have major benefits for physicians and practices as a whole. This, to Ruiz, is the ultimate goal in healthcare.

“Because at the end of the day, healthcare doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. It doesn’t have to be a mechanism that says that in order to optimize for it to be good for the clinician it’s going to be bad for the patient, or vice versa,” Ruiz explained. “I think there is a place where technology can enable an interaction where we can go ahead and optimize the equation for both parties and both win.”

Going forward, Ruiz sees patient engagement and consumer satisfaction as a way to make care interactions simplest for both parties. By making the care encounter as easy as a transaction at a retail shop, providers can simplify their healthcare delivery and create a better visit to the patient.

“When we think about patient access, it’s fundamentally about being able to provide patients the access to healthcare when they need it, where they need it, how they need it,” Ruiz concluded. “It’s about making it easy to use, as easy as being able to walk into Starbucks and do a transaction.”

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