Making the Case for Automated Patient Engagement

Automated patient engagement technology can streamline communications without excessive costs, implementation challenges or healthcare providers losing the "human touch."

More than half (52%) of health system chief information officers (CIOs) recently surveyed ranked deploying patient engagement technology as their top priority for 2021. Driving this mandate is the need to improve patient satisfaction and stay connected with patients at a time of great stress and health uncertainty. Health systems are also seeking to improve care coordination while reducing costs related to patient outreach and alleviating the burden on clinicians, particularly in the wake of staff shortages and increasing burnout.

Yet, many senior decision makers at healthcare organizations still express concerns about adopting automated patient engagement technology to streamline communications related to appointments, vaccines, referrals, pre-procedure prep, follow-up and monitoring, and patient balances. Generally, the concerns are in three areas: human touch/personalization, technology costs and difficulty of implementation.

Losing the “human touch” and personalization

Healthcare organizations may feel apprehensive about losing the “human touch.” Historically, human touch has been the primary way healthcare professionals have fostered trust, strengthened the doctor-patient relationship and facilitated open communication to improve patient satisfaction and health outcomes.

As social interactions have changed, more healthcare consumers and providers are open to new ways of connecting and creating relationships that matter. One survey found that 77% of healthcare executives identified SMS-based appointment reminder systems as the most effective tool for patient engagement, and 75% of overall respondents said that smartphones offered significant benefits for patient engagement as a whole. This reflects changes in the communications landscape and what healthcare consumers want. Patients increasingly expect healthcare services to mirror other industries, delivering highly personalized services with on-demand access.

Regarding personalization, automated patient engagement technology has come a long way. With the right platform, not only can healthcare organizations connect with patients in multiple channels (text, voice, email or live one-on-one chat), they can reach patients in the language they prefer. In addition, the most sophisticated platforms use capabilities like chatbots and electronic health record (EHR) integration that enables two-way communication to create a dialogue experience that feels distinctly human.

Automation also allows for more frequent, targeted communications. For example, one New York City primary care network with more than half million members improved compliance rates for pre-procedure instructions for colonoscopies by using just-in-time SMS messages to educate patients and provide preparation instructions. This resulted in better outcomes for patients and a reduction in the number of procedures cancelled due to lack of preparedness.

Technology costs

Cost is always a factor when considering technology investments, and the C-suite must weigh the benefit of adopting new technologies against the amount of resources they currently devote to patient engagement. For example, most health systems rely on call centers for routine patient engagement such as appointment scheduling and rescheduling. Yet the costs of training new medical information call center agents can reach $6,400 or more annually for each individual. Organizations that opt to outsource these functions still pay an average of $25 to $65 per hour for each representative. From that perspective, adopting automated patient engagement technologies makes strong financial sense for health systems.

For example, a Level 1 trauma center and hospital in Washington, D.C., realized significant annual savings by eliminating manual phone outreach. By implementing an automated, SMS-based patient engagement platform, the healthcare organization achieved immediate cost savings in the form of full-time equivalent dollars and saw a steep reduction in no-shows.

Difficulty implementing and using yet another technology platform

Primary care providers already spend an average of 3.4 hours per clinic day logged into an EHR system, so the last thing the healthcare C-suite wants to do is mandate that clinicians use an additional technology platform. And while many automated patient engagement solutions integrate with EHRs, most require users to manually initiate the connection and input data, validating concerns about difficulties of use.

What healthcare decision makers may not realize is that more advanced platform solutions now exist that “live,” or embed, directly within the EHR. This means minimal IT assistance and staff training is required to deploy and adopt an EHR-embedded patient engagement platform. And since embedded systems record all patient engagement data automatically to and from the EHR, the need for manual input by clinical staff is eliminated. When these platforms are used with widely deployed EHR systems, clinicians already know how to use them, which significantly reduces the learning curve for staff.

Patient portals are another consideration. Given the resources devoted to developing and maintaining these portals, some health executives may balk at the need for even more patient engagement technology. Yet, 63% of insured adults report that they have not visited a portal during the preceding year. Common barriers to patient portal adoption include patient resistance, patient limitations and security and privacy concerns. The complexity of patient portals, unique user interfaces that entail additional learning, and requiring a distinctive login can all be challenging for numerous patient groups.

Automated patient engagement technologies can work in concert with patient portals to increase the number of people health systems can reach on an ongoing basis. This dual approach gives patients greater choice — especially those who may prefer SMS communication given it is more accessible, easier to read and patients can respond to messages when it is most convenient for them.

Should a patient portal fail, automated SMS communication also serves as an effective backup. During a panel discussion on patient engagement and workflow management at the American Hospital Association Leadership Summit, the director of Revenue Cycle Management at AdvantageCare Physicians of New York (ACPNY) recounted how demand for COVID-19 vaccines was so intense in early 2021 that their patient portal crashed. ACPNY turned to its automated patient engagement platform to fill this gap and meet patient demand for vaccinations, scheduling appointments directly via SMS.

With advances in automated engagement technologies, healthcare organizations may find the solution is a cost-effective, consistent way to connect with patients throughout the healthcare journey. Modern patient engagement solutions can address the three primary concerns noted above, allowing healthcare organizations to deliver personalized, human-like interaction, with long-term return on investment and reduced burden on staff. Ultimately, adopting an advanced automated patient engagement solution is a winning proposition for patients, providers and health system staff alike.

Vik Krishnan, MBA, is general manager of Intrado Digital Workflows, which includes HouseCalls Pro, a leading automated digital patient engagement platform. He has 20 years of healthcare experience, including as co-founder/CEO of CipherHealth. Krishnan majored in biomedical engineering before obtaining an MBA from Harvard Business School.