Technology exists today that allows people to connect in ways that were never before possible. In healthcare, for example, technology gives providers opportunities and tools to extend healthcare’s reach beyond the clinical setting. This can lead to increased care quality, improved patient health, and reductions in care costs. A recent West study, Technology-Enabled Communications: The Key to Connected Healthcare, makes the argument that technology alone is not enough to make healthcare better—medical teams must know how to use that technology to make care more connected. Below is a look at how technology can be used to realize the goal of connected healthcare across three different areas: routine care, chronic care, and transition care.
Drawing attention to routine care
The value of routine care is often overlooked by patients. When people are not sick, they tend not to think too much about their health. This is one of the reasons data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows Americans only use routine care at half of the recommended rate. In many cases, it is up to healthcare providers to convince patients to participate in potentially life-saving preventive care. Technology can help with this. Technology-enabled communications can be used to promote preventive services and encourage patients to schedule screenings that will help them stay healthy.
Ochsner Health Systems proved what technology-enabled communications can achieve in the area of preventive healthcare. Ochsner is based in Louisiana, where the number of adults aged 50-75 who are up-to-date with colorectal screening programs is at the lower end of the national average, which the CDC puts at 54%-75%.
Ochsner implemented an automated phone notifications program to encourage a group of 3,137 patients with recent orders for a colonoscopy or upper endoscopy to schedule a screening appointment. The notifications were designed to get patients to initiate the process of scheduling an exam simply by touching a button on their phone—all before procrastination and doubt could get in the way. The program was a success. After only one month, 578 of the 3,137 patients contacted had scheduled their test—a conversion rate of 18.4%.
The American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy notes that the average 60-year-old without special risk factors for polyps has a 25% chance of having a polyp. While these polyps may or may not contain areas of cancer, the exam enables the Ochsner team to address the situation as early as possible. Since 578 patients responded to the outreach campaign, Ochsner calculates that an estimated 145 individuals—the 25% with a potential polyp—benefited greatly from this early detection and prevention campaign.
The Ochsner example shows that people respond well to technology-enabled engagement communications, particularly if they are personal, convenient, and remove burden from patients. The same process that worked for Ochsner can also be used to schedule immunizations for children, encourage well-woman exams among female patients, and support cholesterol tests for middle-aged men, as a few examples.
Supporting chronic care patients
The CDC reports that chronic disease accounts for around 86% of health system costs in the United States. Chronic illnesses pose a significant burden on the American healthcare system. For healthcare providers, one of the challenges of treating patients with chronic conditions has always been providing ongoing support that extends care beyond the clinical setting. A chronic illness cannot be treated during a single office visit. Patients need between-visit support from their healthcare team to help them deal with chronic conditions in their daily lives. This is an area where technology, together with guidance from trained professionals, can benefit patients over time.
Patients across the country are using devices—like blood pressure cuffs, glucometers, and pulse oximeters—that capture and send data to medical providers for evaluation. These devices offer a lot of potential for managing chronic illnesses because they allow healthcare teams to closely monitor patients. Now, physicians can get a much better understanding of how patients are faring between visits because they have data to show them. Not only that, medical teams can intervene when signs indicate that patients are at risk of complications from an illness.
Besides monitoring and proactive interventions, technology helps providers connect with patients and engage them in disease management. Medical teams can leverage technology to send automated engagement messages. Considering that many chronic conditions can be improved or at least managed by making positive lifestyle changes, sending patients messages and reminders to participate in healthy behaviors can greatly impact health outcomes. Reducing stress, losing weight, exercising more, and quitting smoking are just a few of the behavior changes that can directly affect health outcomes for those with a chronic illness. Healthcare providers can use technology as a tool to drive patients to make some of these positive lifestyle changes.
Medical providers say that between-visit communication makes a difference. The West study found that 80% of healthcare professionals believe with motivation and coaching their patients will take necessary steps to become healthy. Patients agree: 85% of surveyed healthcare consumers said that high-tech engagement, by email, text message, and voicemail, is as helpful, if not even more helpful, than in-person or phone conversations with their doctors.
Improving transition care
Transitions are known for being weak points in patient care. CMS has taken several steps to try to improve transition care and minimize breakdowns that lead to things like hospital readmissions. It has done this by assigning financial responsibility to hospitals and healthcare providers. For example, in the time period between October 2016 and September 2017, Medicare will withhold more than half a billion dollars in payments from hospitals that incurred penalties based on readmission rates. These penalties affect about half of the hospitals in the United States.
In many cases, hospital readmissions can be prevented. Reaching out to patients within a few days of discharge is an important move that hospitals must make to minimize readmissions. By leveraging technology-enabled communications, it is easy for hospitals to survey patients, provide transition support, and assess whether patients are at risk of being readmitted. Simply asking patients to complete a touchtone survey that asks whether they are experiencing pain and whether or not they have been taking prescribed medications can help hospitals understand what they need to do to best support individuals during their transitions. It may also help hospitals avoid readmission penalties.
The bottom line
Today, doctors and hospitals can use technology to efficiently deliver communications, monitor patients at home, receive and interpret updates about the health of patients, and initiate interventions. To keep patients healthy and control healthcare costs, it is important for medical teams to take advantage of available technologies that make healthcare more connected and effective.