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2024 to Bring Thoughtful Patient Engagement Tech Investments

Patient engagement technology is poised to right some of healthcare’s biggest consumer-facing pain points, but only if organizations can thoughtfully pick new tools.

Could 2024 be the year for the patient engagement technology boom? It might be, provided clinics and hospitals can access the right technology in a way that solves not just patient experience but also workforce management problems, according to Andrew Hadje, CMPE, director of Content & Consulting at MGMA.

Of course, the past several years have felt like the year for a patient engagement technology boom. Trends of healthcare consumerism coming on the heels of federal pushes for patient portal use have brought patient-facing health tech to the forefront. Since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, it’s been hard to discuss healthcare without hearing about virtual care options and the digital front door.

But providers are bullish on patient engagement technology again coming into 2024, with a particular eye toward tools that can support patient communication, MGMA found late last year. A November MGMA Stat poll found that a quarter of medical group leaders are focusing on patient communication technology over the next 12 months, trailing only to investments in EHR usability (35 percent).

That’s actually a big deal, Hadje said in an interview with PatientEngagementHIT, considering the crisis around workforce burnout and the role EHRs and documentation have historically played in that. Priorities for EHR optimization should be front and center, he indicated, but it’s a big deal that practices are now eyeing patient communications, too.

“As we know, physicians and others have some of the highest rates of burnout recorded right now, but in terms of that patient communication access coming at second place, I think practices are really, really identifying that they can improve that patient flow, all of the ease of access, all the things that we think about when we try to contact a doctor's office,” Hadje said in the interview.

Right now, patients hit a lot of roadblocks when trying to access care. The time from booking to appointment access is long for a lot of specialties, with a July 2023 report from the American Association of Nurse Practitioners showing that 40 percent of patients have to wait what they feel is longer than reasonable to get an appointment. In 2022, the average appointment wait time was 26 days.

But it’s not just the wait. Patients are having trouble booking their appointments, with around six in 10 saying in a 2022 report that poor online booking tools and convoluted call centers kept them from making an appointment.

And none of that’s to mention the paperwork problem patients have.

Care coordination has become a serious detriment to the patient experience, studies have shown. Meanwhile, patients are noticing a downswing in the quality of the digital front door, with some reports showing that patients need more in terms of patient access and patient intake.

This latest MGMA poll demonstrates that providers are hearing their patients.

“We're definitely seeing patients have more of a consumerism focus where they're really prioritizing ease of access and also relying more upon things like online reviews,” Hadje explained, adding that organizations are certainly trying to meet patients in that moment.

But there’s something else that might be motivating organizations to push harder on patient access and communication technology, he posited: workforce shortages.

In an October 2023 report, healthcare leaders said workforce shortages are a bigger problem for them than financial constraints, bringing the issue front and center.

According to Hadje, attention to patient communication tools can be a solution to workforce shortages.

“From the practice standpoint, they're thinking, if we can have the patient complete their paperwork ahead of time, their consents, all of that kind of stuff, and then make that easy for them to check in, it also ties directly into the ease of access into the practice,” he said.

Providing self-service patient intake eases the burden off of the organization’s workforce while also letting patients better manage their well-being and decrease the wait from check-in to seeing a provider.

“That's what the practices are really looking at is, how can we take a process that's really overly complex and streamline it to make it as easy as possible for somebody showing up,” Hadje noted. “They come on time, they're seen on time, and it's just clear, clean communication throughout the whole process. Here's what's going to happen after you're done with your visit. Here's what your responsibility, if any. All of that communication needs to be streamlined and easy for patients.”

The technologies organizations might use to accomplish this are many, Hadje added. There are the obvious solutions, like online appointment scheduling, automated check-in, and virtual care. Digital assistants could become bigger, he said, while some organizations might look into patient-facing care management tools to make it easier for patients to get answers to questions without getting tied up in the call center.

Follow-up reminders, patient education, and even technologies to help connect patients screening positive for social determinants of health to social services could also be on the horizon, Hadje said.

To be sure, there’s a lot of potential for patient engagement technology moving into 2024, Hadje added, but they’ll only be fruitful if practices can be judicious in implementation.

For one thing, organizations need to consider return on investment, which could be different from practice to practice. Practices making technology purchasing decisions need to first look at where they can get the most value out of a tool.

“If it's an area where they can create huge increased patient communications and access and it reduces the amount of staff that they need to be manually handling all those people, I think that's clearly an area where they can easily tie and correlate that back to adding two additional staff members or however many staff members would cost this much per year,” Hadje estimated.

“If this tool is going to cost a quarter that much and it's going to be able to take care of the same things that they'd be doing,” it could be a good investment, he said.

Practices should also look at where they can get solutions bundled together. Moving into the new year, Hadje mentioned that organizations are looking to have a more consolidated technology footprint.

“As we get more vendors that can really say, here's your all-in-one solution from the beginning when the patient walks through the door to when you're getting paid and when the patient is getting even care beyond their visit, how can we solve the whole gamut for you in one big fell swoop,” he explained.

“It's going to create a way better patient experience, but also just it's going to free up staff time. People are looking for ways to work smarter, not just harder, and to overall lower their expenses while improving their productivity.”

Practices can also ask themselves where they’d like to ensure a more personal touch, such as leveraging virtual and telehealth services less often and when appropriate.

They might also ask themselves when they can get away with tacking on another vendor into their Rolodexes.

“When people are worried about too much tech or too many vendors, focus on those areas where there's not as much patient touches,” Hadje recommended.

Take, for example, digital scribes.

“The patients don't really perceive that on their end, but it makes the doctor's experience way better if they can get their documentation and notes and billing done in a much quicker and easier way; that’s going to allow them to see more patients or spend more time with their patients,” Hadje said. “It improves the care overall.”

Where Hadje hedged a bit more was with the potential for AI in healthcare clinics. That’s reflective of the MGMA Stat poll; only 13 percent of practice leaders said they’re prioritizing AI in the next 12 months. That’s likely because practices don’t have the bandwidth to develop their own AI models, Hadje said, and they are waiting for an off-the-shelf solution.

Still, AI in healthcare is an area for excitement and maybe even a bit of a gamble, Hadje said. Organizations may weigh the risks and rewards of using a chatbot for patient triage, he indicated, which could help free up providers for other, more sophisticated tasks.

“There are a lot of exciting things on the horizon. It's just a matter of how quickly can we get there and how can we get there with tools that are at the level they need to be at and again, without providers having to work with too many different vendors,” Hadje concluded.

“I think we're kind of on the brink of it. A lot of exciting new things are coming. It's just a matter of who can do it best and who can do it without having to invest in too many different companies and to make it better than ever for both patients and providers.”

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