By Dessiree Paoli, senior solution manager, Interlace Health.
Even before the pandemic, rural hospitals were closing at record rates. According to a report by the Chartis Center for Rural Health, 19 hospitals in rural America closed in 2019. By 2020, one in four hospitals were at risk of closing — and COVID-19 has only worsened their financial challenges. This is particularly problematic for aging populations and the rural communities that already face barriers to proper healthcare.
As a result, many healthcare organizations are left wondering how they can improve the patient’s journey in healthcare and overcome major obstacles moving forward. They’re handling the drastic increase in telehealth visits, rescheduling clinical trials, promoting digital relationships with doctors, re-evaluating health portfolios, and more.
Given the various challenges healthcare providers and professionals face, what is the best path forward? It starts with establishing a patient-first approach. The industry has to take what it’s learned from an unprecedented 2020 and consider how to reach more patients in 2021 and beyond.
Digital Transformation and the Patient-First Approach
This starts with the role of digital in the changing industry. Advancements and shifts in the digital healthcare experience are likely here to stay. Many of the new tech-based processes brought about by the pandemic (e.g., telehealth, virtual check-ins, new technologies for remote intake) will become standard elements of the digital patient journey.
While industry professionals initially scrambled to adopt these tools, the benefits of digital transformations in healthcare were immediately apparent: convenience, reduced exposure to illness, and increased accessibility. Healthcare organizations became more proactive in reaching their patients, which led to better treatment and quality of care.
But digital transformation is not happening in a vacuum. The push to implement more technology in healthcare processes has also created a push for a more local, results-based approach to healthcare. Decentralized healthcare systems work to improve efficiency and quality of care; they can also enhance communication between a referring provider and the partner organization, ensuring a smooth continuation of care when it’s needed.
The ultimate goal of this push is to open up a “digital front door in healthcare.” This strategic and patient-first approach creates engagement during every interaction with the healthcare system. Why? A well-rounded healthcare strategy doesn’t rely on one component of the patient experience to determine the quality of care — and neither should a digital strategy. Instead, it must take a comprehensive approach that keeps patients engaged and informed.
The marriage between a patient-first approach and a digital front door strategy has the potential to be incredibly powerful. A digital-first, patient-centric approach can propel your organization into the future of healthcare. Here are three suggestions to get you started:
- Online scheduling tools
Online scheduling tools — along with online registration and check-in — are streamlining and improving the patient experience. The pandemic highlighted a universal truth: People want to use tools that make their lives easier. This means having digital access to almost everything, including healthcare.
The patient journey should be smooth and simple, and a digital front door to healthcare enables patients to schedule appointments any time of day, check-in using their phones, and benefit from automated reminders and follow-ups. Better yet, patients can pay for treatment online and be more aware of healthcare expenses ahead of time.
- Telehealth integrations
Some patients prefer in-office treatment to virtual doctor visits, but the way they interact with healthcare organizations has been forever changed. Instead of driving to a clinic and waiting for treatment, patients can take advantage of digital screenings and checkups. Even the most remote patients can use integrated video platforms, web portals, and other applications to take an active role in their healthcare.
There are also tools providers can use to optimize telehealth within their organizations. For example, DrFirst’s Backline is a telehealth integration and communication tool that lets providers seamlessly work together and provide care. Integrations like this make it possible for telehealth to strengthen the experience for patients and providers.
- Digital feedback tools
When going digital, healthcare organizations should continuously consider patient feedback. A patient-first approach is based on input from patients, which means industry professionals benefit from gathering patient feedback, analyzing those responses, and then making any necessary — and feasible — changes.
Many hospitals have patient experience departments, surveys, and processes designed to accomplish this. Use your experiences from 2020 to identify gaps in your existing processes. Once you’ve spotted those gaps, work to ensure everything is streamlined with new digital initiatives — like telehealth and pre-registration — to ensure you’re maximizing the feedback you gather.
While the rest of 2021 remains uncertain, the patient journey in healthcare should be clear. A digital front door strategy ensures patients have access to healthcare — regardless of where they live. If 2020 taught healthcare organizations anything, it was that patients should feel empowered by their healthcare options. This year, they’ll continue to make autonomy, access, and empowerment the foundation of everything they do.