One of the many lessons learned in the healthcare sector during the pandemic is how patient engagement changes. This has been illustrated most recently during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout when messaging, communication, and education have emerged as crucial steps toward ensuring inoculation.
While a study showed that vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. decreased from 27.5% to 22% between January and April 2021, it remained a significant obstacle toward achieving herd immunity. Wendy King, associate professor of epidemiology in the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and lead author of the study, said that is indicative of the fact that “messaging about COVID-19 and vaccine safety and addressing trust are paramount.”
Specifically, messaging — whether through face-to-face interactions, social media channels, or other means — needs to center on the necessity of protecting oneself and how widespread vaccination can hasten a return to normalcy. In addition, there needs to be educated about the fact that the development of multiple vaccines, while appearing to be more rapid than is normally the case, actually represents the culmination of years of research. Moreover, there needs to be educated about the side effects, one of the major reasons for vaccine hesitancy.
All of this indicates the larger trend toward patient engagement — toward, in particular, activation or a desire to be more involved in their care. They want as much information as possible. They want to be able to share in the decision-making process. They want this to be a personalized experience.
That should come as no surprise in an era that has seen the rise of Amazon, Netflix, and other user-friendly interfaces. As Peter Durlach, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer at Nuance, a computer software technology company, put it in an interview with Mobihealthnews:
Consumers are radically changing their expectations of how they’re treated when they interact with a company. Healthcare companies historically have not thought of themselves in some ways as a brand. They’ve thought of themselves, really, as their core mission, which is care delivery. But as the world changes around them and expectations (change) for immediate access to service, self-service, and just what people expect in the non-healthcare world, that’s really coming at healthcare in a major way right now. And as many of the folks know, with COVID, that’s just been accelerated.
Indeed, the pandemic has forced healthcare systems to pivot toward digital solutions more rapidly than they might have anticipated. The adoption of telehealth platforms and electronic medical records has increased in the interest of social distancing. Same for remote patient monitoring systems. Patients have been able to make appointments and view test results via online portals. Chatbots and conversational AI platforms have shown more than ever that they are capable of fielding questions, and Short Messaging Services (SMS) and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) capabilities have further enabled physician-patient communications.
Consider, for example, St. Luke’s Regional Healthcare System in Duluth, Minn. Before the pandemic, just over 27,000 of its patients — not quite 19% of the organization’s total — were enrolled in the patient portal. By April 19 of this year, that total had risen to over 63,000 patients, nearly 35% of the system’s total.
Patient self-scheduling of COVID-19 vaccines via the portal became “critically important,” St. Luke’s director of information technology, Clark Averill, told Healthcareitnews.com. The plan now is to expand self-scheduling to other types of appointments while enhancing virtual visitation, remote patient monitoring, and onboarding those who had not previously been St. Luke’s patients.
Solutions such as these will serve as the cornerstones for various organizations’ patient engagement strategies in the future, as well they should. For example, one study showed that no less than 25% of respondents changed providers during the pandemic because of a suboptimal digital experience. Another revealed that 20% of respondents favored a hybrid model following the pandemic — that while in-person experiences still had value, so too did those via telehealth platforms.
It is predicted, in fact, that by 2026, some $291 million will be invested in the interactive patient engagement solutions market, over twice as much as is expected to be invested in 2021 ($127 million).
Durlach believes that such solutions will improve the patient experience, reduce the need for human labor, and increase revenue. He cautions, however, that it is of the utmost importance to implement an omnichannel infrastructure, as opposed to using one platform for web chat, another for patient access, and a third for SMS, for example. A failure to integrate will only lead to headaches.
Finally, he mentioned that technology only goes so far when it comes to patient engagement. There remains a human element to it, and that should never be forgotten. He offered as an example a case where a patient with comorbidities is seeking counsel. As advanced as the tech has become, another person, not a machine, can only handle that.
In other words, the world is shifting, and those in the healthcare industry need to shift with it. At the same time, some simple truths still apply. As much as everyone needs to pivot, it is always vital to give the nod to the best practices of the past — to understand that a personal touch still has its place. Only that will result in a truly cohesive patient-engagement strategy.