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Using Automated Patient Outreach to Improve Patient Communications

Automated patient outreach technologies don't just make care access simpler for only patients, but for providers, too.

automated patient outreach

Source: Thinkstock

By Sara Heath

- High-touch patient communication is one of the key elements of meaningful patient engagement. As providers work to get their patients in the clinic door for important screenings and preventive care, automated patient outreach tools have been a boon.

Automated patient outreach tools simplify the process of contacting patients, scheduling appointments, and reminding patients of information leading up to an appointment. Organizations can use automated patient outreach tools to contact patients who are due for a physical or to contact patients who need a preventive screening.

Organizations state that these tools simplify their booking and call centers, noting that automated messages free up phone lines for calls that require a human touch.

But how do automated patient communication technologies work? And how have organizations implemented them? Below, PatientEngagementHIT.com explores the primary modes of automated patient outreach tools and how they have impacted organizations.

Text message outreach, automation

Text messages have emerged as a key technology to conduct patient outreach. Unlike the patient portal, text message reminders reach the patient directly in their text inbox and get rid of the hurdles patients face in logging into and accessing their patient portal.

READ MORE: VA Deploys Text Message Appointment Reminders for Patient Outreach

This reduces the friction in the healthcare encounter, according to Fareed Elhaj, MD, owner of the Houston Thyroid and Endocrine Specialists, whose clinic adopted automated text messaging outreach.

“Most of our patient messaging happens by way of the patient portal,” Elhaj said in a previous interview. “But are all the patients using the patient portal? We actually have a pretty good rate for patients use, but it’s still not anywhere close to 100 percent, so a lot of people are missing those messages. And even the ones that are using it – are they going to look at it in a timely enough way so that they can respond back to it? Do they know how to respond back? Do they care to respond back?”

Elhaj adopted an automated text message tool at his practice to send patients pre-scripted messages to offer patients reminders related to their upcoming appointments. Reminders included date and time of appointment, as well as of any materials the patient needs for the appointment, such as medical records from a primary care provider.

Staff at Houston Thyroid and Endocrine Specialists found that text messages offered a much more streamlined avenue for reaching the patient, Elhaj reported.

“What we found with the text messaging is the rates of them seeing it and responding to it are much, much higher,” he said. “It doesn’t work for everything, but we find that for direction questions, direct information where there is not a lot that has to go back and forth, for things like insurance cards.”

READ MORE: How Digital Patient Outreach Tools Boost Preventive Care Visits

And Elhaj and his team are not the only ones tapping automated text messages for patient outreach. Data from the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) recently found that two-thirds of healthcare organizations use text message reminders in their practice.

Most organizations use opt-in messaging programs to remind patients of appointments and to allow the patient to confirm or cancel the appointment.

Of the 24 percent of organizations that have not adopted text message reminders, most said it was because they don’t yet have the technology to support the function.

However, some organizations said their phone call system is equally effective as text message outreach, underscoring the importance of multi-modal approaches to fit diverse patient populations.

Using automation with phone calls

For some patients, text message is not necessarily the best avenue by which to contact them. Although a near majority of patients are using text messaging on their smartphones – Pew Research says 97 percent of all American use text messaging, and that number remains high among senior adults (92 percent) – phone calls are more actionable and can yield higher patient response rates.

READ MORE: What Providers Should Know to Improve Patient Access to Healthcare

Some statistics show that up to 50 percent of patients would still prefer to be contacted by their provider via phone call, and it’s important organizations keep the technology to meet all patient needs.

At the University of Alabama Birmingham Medicine, automated patient outreach phone calls resulted in a 78 percent uptick in patients scheduling endoscopies, according to UAB’s transitional care coordinator Joann Clough.

Using technology from Emmi, Clough and her team transitioned from a manual, cold call-based process into a seamless, automated patient engagement strategy.

“We would start the phone call process, but we were having very poor success with reaching the patients. It was just a manual cold calling system, and we'd call and they didn't answer,” Clough said in a previous interview with PatientEngagementHIT.com.

“We'd leave a message, and we'd put that chart aside. Then we'd call the next patient and leave a voicemail. Then we'd put that chart aside,” she continued, noting the monotony of the process. “We were just getting these piled up charts, and there was never any resolution about what do to do with these patients that weren’t getting scheduled.”

UAB’s automated phone call tool reaches out to patients with pre-recorded voice messages prompting patients to schedule their referred endoscopy appointment. Patients have the option of scheduling during the call, or obtaining the call-back information necessary to schedule on their own time.

Once the automated call system calls a patient three times to no avail, Clough’s team makes a final cold call attempt before letting the patient go.

The automated phone call system resulted in a significant increase in patient appointment schedules, as well as decreased administrative burden for staff, Clough stated.

“The schedulers no longer have stacks of paper on their desk of patients they're trying to reach, and the frustration of not being able to reach patients is pretty much gone,” she reported. “They have so much time back because automation does all the hard work for them.”

And with decreased administrative burden can come more focus on patient-facing initiatives or decreased staff burnout, two important issues facing the healthcare industry today.

Healthcare is on a journey to become more convenient. As industry leaders call for a streamlined care access process for patients, it will likewise be critical to create simplification for staffers and providers. Automated patient outreach tools create one path forward to creating this symbiotic relationship between patient and staffer.

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