There are Right (and Wrong) Ways to Do Patient Engagement

Older man talking to female doctor (848 x 565 px)

I recently came across an interview with Stephen Beck, MD, Chief Medical Information Officer (CMIO) at Catholic Health Partners. Dr. Beck was being interviewed on the subject of patient portals and patient engagement.

Here’s a quote from that interview:

“While we have many enrolled patients in our patient portal, it’s not simply the enrollment but the actual use in Stage 2 that meets the criteria. Although the threshold is fairly low, there is still ongoing concern about how we can encourage patients to use the portal regularly…. We want patients to use electronic communication rather than pick up the phone. For many patients, this transition will take quite some time to achieve. I have confidence the patients will see the light—the question is: How quickly?”

No wonder Catholic Health Partners is having trouble getting 5% of their patients to “use” their portal for secure messaging, etc. They are doing patient engagement for the wrong reasons. And, as we as have seen with Mayo Clinic and others, Catholic Health Partners is not alone.


There are two reasons for doing patient engagement

There are two reasons why an organization should get involved with patient engagement. The right reasons and the wrong reason. The use of the terms right and wrong is not intended to imply any moral connotations. Rather, it refers to the likelihood that one’s engagement efforts will succeed or not.

The right reason:

If your engagement efforts are done principally for the patient’s benefit (patient-centered), then you are doing it for the right reason. Examples of the right reasons include:

  • Ensuring that each patient is as involved as they want in their own care
  • Reducing patient risks of infection or injury due to medical errors or safety issues
  • Helping patients make health decisions that are right for them
  • Providing patients with important self-care skill, and so on

You get the idea.


The wrong reason:

If you are trying to engagement patients principally for the benefit of someone else (health care executives, physicians, or regulators), then you are doing it for the wrong reasons and patients will quickly sense this. Examples of the wrong reason abound and include:

  • Doing it to achieve Stage 2 Meaningful Use (MU)
  • Off-loading work heretofore done by clinicians to patients via a patient portal
  • Engaging is shared decision-making to coach the patient away from costly service requests
  • Putting a patient or two on an advisory committee as window dressing
  • Requiring that patients view their physician notes on the patient portal or health app before allowing them to find what they really want

Sure you can rationalize that everything ultimately is for the patient’s benefit but come on. Patients aren’t stupid. They know when something benefits them and when it really is for someone else’s benefit. Forcing patients to go online to use secure messaging to communicate with their healthcare provider instead of calling is a pretty transparent way of trying to eliminate staffing costs and achieve Stage 2 MU. But from a customer service perspective, it’s not very smart. Person-to-person interactions are much more meaningful from an engagement perspective than “going online.” Heck, even the airlines let you call and speak with a reservation agent if you don’t want to book your flight online.


The takeaway?

Remember, many patients (people) are already engaged in their health albeit in ways that differ from the way providers tend to define engagement (e.g., patients doing what we provider consider to be the right thing). Following the admonition to “do no harm,” the healthcare providers job is to be engaging and avoid pissing off the patient and disengaging them.

Also, remember that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—call it unintended consequences. In this case, Catholic Health Partners might not only fail to achieve Stage 2 MU but also increase patient dissatisfaction, in turn disengaging more patients than they actually engage. I doubt that their patients will ever see the light as Dr. Beck hopes. But then, patients are not the one’s who need to “see the light,” are they?

My advice is if you do something nice for your customers, something that they find to be a benefit, then you can never go wrong.

That’s what I think. What about you?

First Posted at Mind the Gap on 2/6/2014.

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Stephen Wilkins
Principal and Founder, Mind The Gap Academy, a thought leader, research, and solution provider company specializing in physician-patient communications, patient engagement, and patient-centered/relationship-centered care. Steve has over 25+ years of professional health care experience working in and consulting with hospitals, health plans, physician groups and solution vendors. The balance of his experience has been in working with provider organizations in the areas of applied consumer health behavior.



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