Automation enhances patient experience and staff efficiency | Vik Krishnan

Industry analysts, operational leaders, and front-line workers agree that staffing constraints will continue to negatively affect the healthcare system.

Balancing the pressures of pandemic-related impacts and a worn-down clinical workforce alongside other demographic and economic forces is a major challenge for executives at health systems. And as staff try to balance competing priorities of scheduling, communicating about, and delivering patient care—among other daily tasks—there is no doubt that the patient experience suffers, while staff burden increases.

In an effort to address these obstacles, many health system leaders have begun to examine and implement patient engagement automation through technology. This approach reduces human-intensive communication tasks and can be applied to a wide range of activities like appointment scheduling, care follow-up, and even referral management.

All of these tasks are critical for keeping patients healthy and visit volumes high. And they’re easily automated, giving back valuable time to staff to spend on personal interactions where they matter most.

Monitoring patient experience like a vital sign

Patient experience is among the most important metrics for hospitals and health systems, but this priority isn’t just a clinical goal—it’s also trickled down to many different operational and technical areas.

A recent healthcare executive survey revealed that improving the patient experience is the number-one patient engagement priority for 91% of respondents. This is not a surprise when you consider the wide-reaching implications of focusing on this aspect of care delivery, from patient outcomes and safety to clinician satisfaction and reimbursement.

However, the individuals responsible for helping patients navigate their care experience are spread incredibly thin, having been tasked with doing more with less over the last two years.

This increased demand on staff members coincides with heightened patient expectations. Patients want to receive healthcare in a way that mimics their retail experience, but burned-out healthcare staff are struggling to deliver care that meets these expectations.

For example, a recent poll found that 45% of over 2,000 adult respondents had struggled to schedule healthcare appointments, while about 25% saw their surgery or treatment delayed.

Patients aren’t the only frustrated parties. Staff members grapple with the most routine patient engagement interactions, like appointment scheduling, due to manual efforts resulting in unanswered phone calls and unreturned voicemails.

Tagging in tech to help

In spite of the complex staffing and labor dynamics facing the healthcare industry, patient experience matters so much that engagement cannot take a back seat. And that’s exactly where automation comes in.

With staff members balancing an increasing number of competing priorities, streamlined engagement workflows can quickly and easily eliminate unnecessary hours spent on manual patient communications. Better yet, truly optimized outreach for care appointments, vaccines and preventive services, specialty referrals and even pre- and post-care messages can make these communications even more effective.

All of these workflows traditionally required manual outreach, such as calling a patient to notify them if they’re due for a preventive screening like a mammogram (and in many cases, receiving responses back from patients in the form of an additional phone call or scheduling request).

Yet digital engagement platforms can enable communication with patients via text, voice, email, or even one-on-one chat, replacing these time-intensive processes. Advanced automation takes this interactivity a step further by allowing patients to respond back to this outreach, and then documenting their responses into the electronic health record (EHR).

In order to truly automate these common communication activities, while ensuring patients can interact with their care team in a “human-like” way through channels they use in their daily lives, the following best practices are key:

  • It has to integrate with the EHR. Patient engagement activities should occur within the same systems staff members already use every day—the EHR. This mitigates time clinicians and support staff may need to acclimate to a new platform or point solution, instead focusing their energy where it’s needed most: on patient care.
  • Closed-loop is a must. It’s not enough to simply notify patients when a specialist referral has been received or when they’re due for a preventive care service. Patients should be able to “close the loop” and book an appointment digitally—at their convenience and without manual phone outreach.
  • Punctual and personalized, period. Just-in-time outreach that’s tailored to each patient’s care journey and preferences like language means that messages are relevant and meaningful—without overwhelming patients, risking they feel “spammed”.

The right time for time savings

To streamline these actions, savvy healthcare leaders are turning to technology-enabled solutions that complement existing EHR and patient portal platforms with the latest automated SMS-based engagement. This approach relieves staff and provides a more consumer-centric experience for patients.

For example, a health system in Washington State adopted a SMS-based, direct-scheduling workflow that offered patients self-service options, eliminating the need for manual intervention. The workflow was designed to scale up and down as varying groups of patients among the thousands within the health system’s patient population became eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in early 2021.

Automating this outreach and allowing patients to self-schedule vaccination appointments saved approximately 5 minutes of time per appointment, all while providing patients with a convenient, streamlined experience. The campaign’s no-show rates were less than one percent.

Organizations still relying upon outdated, manual methods of outreach will likely struggle to truly integrate patient engagement into care delivery given today’s staffing challenges. Industry insights have revealed that the time investment required of healthcare teams to weave in this type of engagement is one of the biggest barriers.

It is, in part, because of capacity and staffing issues that automated technology is well-positioned for wide adoption. With routine communications, these solutions can fill the role of clinicians and support staff while freeing their time for personalized, direct patient care, where and when the “human touch” matters the most.

Vik Krishnan, MBA, is General Manager of Intrado Digital Workflows, which includes HouseCalls Pro, a leading automated digital patient engagement platform.