Streamlining the Consumer Experience Along the Patient Care Journey
The rise in healthcare consumerism has led provider organizations to adopt numerous patient engagement technologies. Although these tools have helped support a shift toward patient-centricity and operational efficiency, they have also made for a fragmented patient care journey that needs unifying.
After all, when patients visit the doctor, they aren’t segmenting the encounter by the scheduling process, registration, clinical exam, and bill pay. They are vulnerable patients simply experiencing a trip to the doctor’s office. Siloing those processes into separate domains is creating unnecessary complexity.
As healthcare organizations work to ease that complexity, support a good patient experience, and see a return on investment (ROI), they need to reexamine their approach to the patient engagement technologies and revenue cycle management (RCM) that define their consumerism strategies.
Why a consumer-centered healthcare experience is important
Healthcare is in the throes of a paradigm shift sparked mostly by digital advances in other service sectors and increases in patient financial responsibility. With patients on the hook for more of their medical costs, they are becoming savvy shoppers and are looking for healthcare to replicate the consumer-centricity that defines retail, travel, and banking.
“Healthcare consumerism starts with the realization that patients are, in fact, consumers—this was not the prevailing point of view even as recently as a few years ago,” according to Patrick Drewry, vice president of product, Patient Engagement, at Change Healthcare. “Consumerism is really about healthcare beginning to operate like other consumer marketplaces. At the end of the day, there is no greater incentive than winning and retaining patient loyalty, which leads to greater revenue. Patients are happy and financials are healthy.”
Healthcare consumerism is here to stay, with consumerism ranking as one of the defining trends for medicine in a 2021 HFMA survey of C-suite executives and practicing physicians.
Even post-pandemic, healthcare consumerism has come to characterize the industry, with patient needs and preferences in some cases influencing organizations. A 2020 survey found that patients would bring their business elsewhere if they did not perceive adequate patient safety in the wake of COVID-19, underscoring the power consumers wield over the business of healthcare.
“Healthcare is just like any other business. We as patients are deciding to go take our business to a healthcare organization,” Drewry emphasized. “As with any market, when consumers (patients) demonstrate willingness to ‘take their business elsewhere’, they in turn introduce competitive pressure to suppliers (providers) to win their business. It is a virtuous cycle that wasn’t really at the forefront of healthcare until recently.”
So as healthcare organizations work to meet patient expectations and create a good consumer experience, reducing the friction in a medical encounter has become paramount. Healthcare organizations are turning to patient engagement technologies like self-scheduling tools, digital patient intake and registration, and digital payment to create a consumer-friendly and patient-first experience.
Using patient experience tools to support ROI
It’s not just the consumer experience that organizations are thinking about. In an era of thin operating margins, providers are being judicious about where they invest. Some patient engagement technologies support operational efficiency, but that’s only part of the payoff. Organizations should be mindful that consumer-centered healthcare and hospital ROI can go hand-in-hand.
“With a healthcare organization, that’s very difficult because they operate on thin margins, and, ultimately, anything they invest in needs to have tangible ROI,” Drewry said. “Your success in improving the patient experience will be reflected in your top line monetary impact,” he added.
For example, data has indicated that having consumer- friendly billing systems and a good financial experience can boost collections. Patients are more likely to pay a bill in full when they had a good financial experience with the organization.
“If you’re engaging patients successfully, they will be coming back, your schedules will be filled, and your reimbursement will be high,” Drewry said. “All of those things will occur as byproducts of this intangible improvement in patient experience.”
Healthcare organizations have largely already laid the groundwork for patient engagement technology investment. Having a strong patient engagement infrastructure has been important for more than a decade, with organizations realizing the impact patient engagement can have on outcomes and value-based care, not to mention patient satisfaction.
But as healthcare organizations have worked to ease the most abrasive parts of the patient experience—and clinic and hospital operations—they have filled the gaps with piecemeal technology solutions. As providers iterate into the next phases of the patient experience, they must unify consumer-facing systems into a singular path through the care encounter.
Aligning patient engagement solutions
Online self-scheduling platforms, patient registration tools, and patient outreach technologies have all come together to meet consumer expectations.
But they’ve also fragmented the patient care journey.
“Everybody in healthcare technology is going through the same realization, which is that we were so focused on the provider and solving their complex problems that we never considered that there’s actually a patient experiencing that same thing on the other side,” Drewry explained.
Now, the appointment scheduling, registration, and bill pay process might live in three different places. That’s not intuitive for a patient who only sees a single healthcare encounter.
Healthcare organizations need to reimagine their patient engagement strategies and prioritize a streamlined patient journey.
“As a healthcare organization, you really need to think about that end-to-end journey and what that single person is experiencing,” Drewry stated. “That’s compared to your domain on the healthcare side where you’re organized into financial, clinical, IT, all these different sub-domains. Just because that’s the way you look at the world, doesn’t mean that patients are going to look at the world the same way.”
Providers don’t need to start from a blank slate; most healthcare organizations are at least partially along their path toward healthcare consumerism. But as healthcare providers continue along that path, unifying the experience across those sub-domains will be integral to fulfilling patient needs.
“It’s all one journey for the patient, and so any technology advancement needs to consider all things clinical, financial, and operational,” Drewry said.
Providers can begin by assessing where they have already invested and where they are in their consumer-centered journey. Moving forward, organizations should consider the partners that can fill in the gaps and help move the patient forward from the beginning to the end of the healthcare encounter.
There is no shortage of patient engagement technologies available to providers. The key will be picking out the ones that can help patients clinically and financially while the organization gets help operationally.
Humanizing the healthcare journey
Even as healthcare embraces patient engagement technologies, organizations still need to remember who’s at the receiving end of those
services: a vulnerable patient who just wants to be healthy.
“No one likes to feel like they’re a cog in a machine and like they’re getting the same experience end to end because we all have different preferences and we all interpret things differently,” Drewry explained. “It’s important to understand who your patient is and what their preferences are and to meet them where they are.”
Take, for example, patient outreach and communication systems. Most healthcare organizations are able to text message, email, or call patients to book an annual screening or remind them to get their flu shots. Humanizing the healthcare journey means understanding the patient preference for communication and meeting patients where they are.
But even for patients who primarily want that text message communication, it’s important not to get caught up in pursuit of streamlined automation. Patients are often vulnerable, and there are many parts of that healthcare experience that need the empathetic human touch. Healthcare organizations need to be agile enough to determine when patient engagement should be automated and when it should be human-centered.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to automate the interactions that you can and free up your staff to have that human conversation,” Drewry advised.
For example, a lot of patient payments can be delivered automatically. But in the world of high medical bills and out-of-pocket costs, it will be important that not everything is automated. Patients recovering from a medical emergency shouldn’t be hit with a several hundred-dollar outof- pocket bill via text message.
“You want to reach them and set them up with somebody who can be more empathetic than a text message, which is a human,” Drewry recommended.
Patient-centered processes are the road to healthcare consumerism
Ultimately, healthcare organizations and the technology solutions they adopt need to be mindful that there is a patient on the other side of their patient engagement processes. Providers will continue to advance their efforts to meet the demands of healthcare consumerism, and as they do, they must reimagine systems in which the patient moves across a journey and not from process to process.
An interoperable healthcare system depends on the ability of payers, providers, and technology partners to weave together existing technology and close gaps in regulatory compliance. And the proper implementation of an interoperability solution can prove transformative across the entire spectrum of care.