It’s no secret telehealth use has skyrocketed exponentially because of the pandemic. Health systems and private practices were forced to quickly pivot to adopt and scale virtual care options to provide socially distant treatment for low-acuity care. In turn, consumers have enthusiastically embraced these digital, convenient care options resulting in telehealth usage that is 38X higher than before the pandemic.
This increase is in part thanks to the shift away from conflating telehealth with just video visits. Health systems have continued to evolve and mature their virtual care offerings to help address pain points like clunky workflows and digital equity, so they’re embracing more strategic virtual care offerings that help meet patient and provider expectations for better care delivery–like asynchronous telehealth and remote patient monitoring. More healthcare organizations have learned that to remain competitive, improve outcomes, and lower overall costs of care, they need to offer more convenient options and advance their digital patient experience.
During Covid’s surges, the default became telehealth for any type of care that wasn’t an emergency or Covid-related. Whether an asynchronous visit for an ear infection or a video visit with a primary care provider or even messaging with a provider about questionable symptoms, patients immediately turned to telehealth for their care needs.
Now, there’s an abundance of choices. As Covid risks fluctuate and more in-person experiences are fully opened, we’re seeing many consumers veer back toward pre-pandemic tendencies–waiting weeks to see a primary care provider in person or walking into an urgent care to get antibiotics for a minor infection. And the reality is consumer telehealth usage is declining from its peak in 2020.
With more options for care than ever–both within a patient’s health system, as well as through direct-to-consumer apps and retail offerings–it’s time for healthcare organizations to redesign digital patient experiences that help their population navigate the new world of hybrid care in a way that helps them feel in control while giving them the recommended healthcare guidance they’re looking for from their trusted providers. Here are the best practices health systems should adopt when designing a positive digital patient experience.
Open Up Digital Front Doors
While consumers and providers alike are embracing convenient, virtual care options, the irony is it’s often hard to figure out how to start that journey online. Health system websites remain hard to navigate and people want their trusted providers to point them in the right direction to get treatment.
To cut down on confusion, virtual triaging can help determine an optimal care pathway for treatment. This means an easy solution on the health system’s website where the patient inputs their symptoms. From there, they can be directly connected to the recommended healthcare venue–configured by the health system–to guide them to the appropriate option. This way, patients can be directed to the correct care venue the first time for faster treatment and improved health outcomes.
In addition to cutting down confusion for patients, virtual triaging also has significant benefits for hospitals and health systems. Healthcare continues to face major staffing shortages, which show no signs of slowing. New research projects a shortage of 3.2 million healthcare workers by 2026. By implementing virtual triaging capabilities and automating clinical intake, health systems can relieve some of the administrative burdens on staff and overwhelmed call centers.
Escalate Care Options When Appropriate
While virtual options such as asynchronous care and video visits are proven effective for treating common low-acuity conditions such as rashes and the common cold, not every case will be appropriate to be treated digitally. For instance, while an ear infection and a fever may be easy to treat asynchronously for many people if the patient experiencing these symptoms is an infant, it could be an emergency or at least require a phone call or in-person visit with a provider. And if someone is having chest pain, in most cases, they should immediately be directed to call 911 or go to the ER for emergency treatment.
This means connecting patients to the appropriate care setting health systems need the right technology to efficiently identify emergent conditions and provide support when they arise. Having a digital front door that is customizable and can be reconfigured as needed in real-time by health system administrators will mean not only addressing more complex situations and each system’s unique preferences, but allowing organizations to make changes due to capacity constraints, staff shortages, and other load balancing factors. Ultimately, this means being able to lower wait times for quality care in order to boost patient satisfaction in the long term.
Educate Patients on What Their Care Options Are
One of the mistakes many healthcare organizations make is missing opportunities to educate consumers on what their care options actually mean, how they work, and when to use them. It’s not about waiting for someone to type a term in the search bar or asking them to click around ten-plus times to find a breakdown of what your virtual care offerings are and what’s different about each option. And as organizations continue to embrace more care options, it’s on them to embed patient education into their digital experience. Developing a seamless, digital front door that includes a straightforward overview of what each care option is that is being shown to the patient based on their symptoms is critical.
We know that consumers want to feel in control of their care, and they’re showing more agency and engagement in their healthcare than ever before–whether that’s measured through the adoption of wearables and fitness trackers, patients emailing their providers directly, or accessing their health records through their EHR. And while health literacy remains low, the importance of educating people on their care and their options along their journey is an important step to helping lower costs and improve outcomes. It also helps in building and maintaining patient trust as their go-to for healthcare information and services.
Provide a Digital Consumer Experience to Earn Patient Loyalty
Due to the complex nature of care delivery, healthcare has understandably lagged behind other industries, such as retail and banking, when it comes to providing a modern and delightful consumer experience. But lagging behind means losing patient loyalty–and every time a patient goes outside of the system for a sinus infection or even their hair loss treatment and has a positive, convenient experience, they might turn to that competitor the next time they need care for other needs.
This behavior is not only impacting downstream revenue for the system but it’s impacting patients’ overall continuity of care and ultimately long-term outcomes. And competition for these patients is hotter than ever: in a recent survey of healthcare consumers, 48 percent of respondents chose to bypass their local health system in favor of convenience care options such as CVS, Rite-Aid, or Walmart or chose to receive care online or through an app.
To attract and retain patients in the long term, health systems will need to be creative when it comes to designing and implementing a true digital patient experience that enables hybrid care delivery. The moment when someone feels sick and is first looking for care is when their patient experience begins. And providing them with the quick, modern, and seamless experience to start their care journey directly online will be essential to cutting down on confusion, addressing capacity constraints, and providing patients with the care they need as quickly as possible.
The author, Robert DiFalco, is Chief Technology Officer at Bright. MD.