- Health IT has long been considered integral to the push for better patient engagement, with healthcare experts asserting that technology will improve the patient experience through seamless data access, care management, and patient activation in care.
But expectation hasn’t always been reality, according to Cynthia Burghard, a research director with IDC Health Insights. Patient engagement technology hasn’t garnered the enthusiasm of patient populations, and has left them just as frustrated with the healthcare system has they were before the insurgence of these tools.
“There are three things that patients hate besides the cost of healthcare,” Burghard told PatientEngagementHIT.com in an interview. “Healthcare's inconvenient, it's inconsistent, and it's not personalized. And it's, in part, a flaw in the technology, frankly.”
Patient engagement tools, although certainly intended to make healthcare more convenient and patient-centered, are actually making more work for patients, Burghard added. Take, for example, the patient portal.
Healthcare providers began adopting the patient portal primarily because of meaningful use requirements. The notion that a more informed patient will be a more engaged patient came as an added benefit.
But too often clinicians adopted patient portals just for the sake of having them, rather than designing the tools with features that will truly benefit patients.
“The concept was, ‘if we build it they will come,’” Burghard said. “But when a patient is trying to get on to a payor or health system portal, but it's not a fun experience. The portal can be difficult to navigate, and you have to remember the password.”
The patient portal often lacked functionality and highly personalized information, two elements Burghard suggest would be key to a better patient experience. And while it is reasonable for medical professionals to want patients to have access to their lab results, that data doesn’t always have the context necessary to spur patient action.
“And even when it came down to trying to help patients manage chronic illness or the post-hospitalization time period it was really manual,” she added. “The portal required the patient to go and do something. But the paradigm is starting to shift and there's starting to be an understanding that it's not about adding one more burden to the patient.”
What Burghard, who recently authored an IDC report about the trends in patient engagement technology, has observed is that some of the most functional patient engagement tools are beginning to crop up outside of the patient portal.
Instead, they’re on mobile device applications, such as a dynamic medication adherence app or an appointment reminder system. While the patient portal has the potential to house all of these functions, the fact of the matter is a patient is more likely to access tools conveniently located on their smartphone instead of a less operable portal.
“Regardless of what one's age is, no one goes anywhere without a mobile phone,” she pointed out. “We do so much of our business with a mobile phone or a tablet. If I can use a mobile device to schedule an appointment, why would I go to the portal and have to remember all the nonsense that you have to remember when you use the portal?”
Until the patient portal can catch up with these other tools – for example, becoming mobile-optimized or making other usability fixes – it will become obsolete, Burghard predicted.
But if the patient portal is phasing out as the prominent patient engagement technology, what will take over? According to Burghard, more targeted tools that deliver personalized medicine are coming to the forefront.
“Currently, medicine is not personalized,” she noted. “How do I get information that's about me, not just a generic, ‘call your doctor in the morning, take two Advil?’ Those are some of the issues that consumers have and we're starting to see technology respond to that.”
For example, tools that analyze patient data to deliver care instructions will help patients better manage their treatments. A tool that tells a patient how to prepare for a surgery based on the patient’s specific procedure and comorbidities will be more engaging than one that gives the generic instructions for all operations.
Instrumental to this personalized medicine approach will be machine learning and artificial intelligence, Burghard posited.
One tool Burghard has looked at uses artificial intelligence to cater recovery and care management instructions to real-time patient needs. The tool will ask the patient what their pain levels are, for example. Using that information, along with data about when the patient received what procedure, the machine will make a specific care recommendation.
“It's because of the artificial intelligence that the machine is able to understand who the patient is, what the context of her question or response might be, and answer appropriately,” Burghard explained.
Medical professionals are also turning to wearables and remote patient monitoring tools to deliver more personalized patient care. A wearable can detect whether a patient is adhering to a care management program, such as getting a certain amount of exercise.
And using telehealth, medical professionals can make the care journey more convenient for patients.
These technologies have been around or in development for some time, Burghard acknowledged. However, the time is ripe for them to spread throughout the healthcare industry.
For one, use cases are demonstrating that more dynamic approaches to patient engagement are paying off. Healthcare organizations that have deployed automated text message appointment reminders are seeing patient no-show rates go down by nearly one-fifth, and are recuperating costs in the near millions.
“If we see those use cases emerge, we'll see hospitals and physicians realize it's not just a government requirement that they engage patients,” Burghard asserted. “It is really part of their practice and it's going to reflect on them negatively or positively in terms of getting and maintaining patients.”
Cost has also been a considerable factor in the evolution of patient engagement technology. While in previous years the notion of deploying artificial intelligence may have seemed an insurmountable financial burden, these tools are now becoming realistic for more organizations.
And as more organizations create value-based care payment agreements, connecting with the patient in a meaningful way has become easier and more important. Organizations are seeing more payers willing to reimburse for tools like telehealth and remote patient care.
And organizations are seeing the pay off – a patient who has meaningful connections to their care and providers will likely maintain overall wellness for a longer period of time.
As more providers work to partner with the patient throughout the care journey, Burghard predicted technology will follow suit to make that possible.
“All of these things are being proactively delivered to help patients get through the really complicated, difficult process of navigating the healthcare system either administratively or clinically,” she concluded. “And we're beginning to see some return in essence with these technologies.”