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:
At first glance, the healthcare field seems to be a goldmine for digital innovation. An overextended workforce, outdated protocols, hundreds of wasted hours in administrative tasks, a patient population that is wide open to digital solutions, a multitude of inefficiencies and redundancies — the opportunities for digital overhaul in healthcare are myriad. Yet every year the graveyard of digital health tools gets more crowded as innovators fail to overcome healthcare’s uniquely complex barriers to their adoption.
Goldmine and graveyard, the tremendous opportunities for digital transformation in healthcare and the seemingly insurmountable barriers to its adoption are two sides of a coin. They spring from the same root causes: the lack of financial incentives to implement digital solutions; the high stakes that necessitate a cautious approach; and most significantly, providers’ seeming unwillingness to abandon proven workflows or sunk costs to take a chance on a disruptive solution.
This last cause is often the greatest barrier to getting innovation through the door. Clinicians are the primary end-users of digital health, and a clinical champion can make all the difference in whether a solution is adopted. But in the face of the physician shortage in the United States, doctors don’t have time to trade out their proven workflows to take a risk on a solution that may or may not be successful, and will almost certainly take time to learn and implement into their practice. The majority of providers are already at capacity — eighty percent have no time to see more patients or take on more duties. Thus what seems like an unwillingness to change is often an inability to find the time to change.
Because of their packed schedules, physicians often default to the status quo for sanity’s sake: forty percent of physicians see up to 20 patients per day, with another 40% seeing more (anywhere from 21 to over 70); and all spend almost a quarter of their day on administrative duties like inputting data into EHRs. If physicians do have a chance to sit down with innovators, it’s in the margins of their day — instead of an exciting opportunity for change, a pitch-meeting with an innovator represents another 15 minutes they have to take from their family at the end of a long day, an extra 10 minutes of sleep lost in the morning to get into the office early, the interruption of the small respite of a lunch break.
It’s no surprise that in a 2018 survey conducted by the Physician’s Foundation, eighty-nine percent of physicians polled felt that they had somewhat to very little influence on changes in healthcare — they have no time to research chances to optimize their practice, and thus essentially no voice in its improvement. Yet only a physician has the kind of intimate knowledge of his or her needs and workflow that can drive effective innovations. Perhaps digital innovations have failed to take hold because the people making decisions around tools to help doctors are not doctors.
If we are going to break the barriers to digital transformation in healthcare, we need to expect physicians to think critically about how their job needs to evolve. And no one can do this without time to reflect on and evaluate the status quo. In the corporate world, executives and other employees are encouraged to do research, to take time in their schedules for professional development. Many tech giants — most famously Google, but also Facebook, Linkedin, Apple, and others — employ the 20 percent time model, where roughly one-fifth of an employee’s schedule is focused on personal side projects (those side projects have turned into Gmail, Google Maps, Twitter, Slack, and Groupon, to name a few). This is the model that we need to embrace in the healthcare system.