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Building the Digital Front Door with a Patient-Centered Lens

Building the digital front door might help increase market share, but doing so with a patient-centered focus will help ensure the digital suite meets patient needs.

For Jerry Vuchak, the senior vice president and chief information officer for Nebraska-based Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, building out the digital front door isn’t just about keeping up with the Joneses.

“When I think about this personally, I don't think about this as competing locally with someone else to get the job,” Vuchak, whose organization recently launched digital wayfinding from Gozio as part of its virtual patient engagement suite, said in an interview. “Our first goal and our strategic plan are around quality, safety, and exceptional patient experience. And that's what we're really going after here is the exceptional experience every time.”

Sure, Vuchak admitted, the digital front door and the patient engagement technologies that comprise it have become imperative in an increasingly consumerized healthcare industry. One of the pediatric hospital’s values is also innovation, and that means pushing the envelope on tools that help Children’s meet patients and families where they are.

During the pandemic, Vuchak and his team joined much of the healthcare industry in working to stand up tools that help it remotely stay connected with patients, accelerating years’ worth of technology investments and plans in a matter of days, weeks, and months.

Patients have now come to expect that level of connectivity, just as they have come to expect the type of streamlined experience they have gotten a taste of from the retail or banking or travel industries. Being able to offer that through an omnichannel patient engagement technology experience might help Children’s build patient loyalty and market share, Vuchak acknowledged, but at the core of the mission is patient-centricity.

“What we really want to do is to meet our consumers where it's most convenient for them,” he explained. “So, if they want to come to our brick-and-mortar sites, they want to see clinicians in that space, then that's great. If they want to engage with us digitally through mobile platforms, we want to have that capability if they want to visit with us virtually.”

At the start of 2022, Vuchak and his team outlined where it wanted to go in terms of the digital front door, which Vuchak actually terms the “digital front doors” in a nod to the many ways in which patients interact with healthcare. Digital investments fell into either the patient experience bucket—patient engagement, patient experience, patient education—or the financial bucket, mainly virtual bill-pay.

From there, the group had to pinpoint technology investments that are high-priority.

“We had to figure out what are the things that consumers really want in need, because there's a lot of things we could go after,” Vuchak stated. “We can go after wayfinding, we can go after mobile application, we can go after access, we can go after referrals. And so, how do you determine the thing that the consumer really wants?”

Children’s enlisted the help of its patient and family advisory council to ensure any digital front door projects would be patient-centered. Vuchak presented the PAC with around 10 areas where Children’s was considering IT investment and asked patients to rank those areas. The PAC also had the opportunity to outline digital patient engagement tools that are falling short, like the patient portal, which Vuchak said Children’s added to its list of health IT projects.

But while the patient voice is integral in any patient-facing project, Vuchak acknowledged the importance of making sure everything can align from an IT standpoint.

“Everything that we do from the digital strategy has to be linked back to the health records,” he emphasized.

The patient engagement technology space has always varied from other health IT markets because there are few vendors that provide a unified product. Unlike EHR vendors, which in most cases also offer the patient portal, revenue cycle management, and population health software that organizations need, most of the patient engagement vendors stick to their niche.

But asking patients to yo-yo from one tool to the next is not a viable approach, Vuchak noted. Patients and their family members visiting Children’s don’t want to have to bounce from its new wayfinding app to the patient portal to any extra remote patient monitoring apps. That’s complex, even for patients with the highest digital health literacy.

Children’s has approached this problem by stringing its patient engagement apps together and prioritizing vendors that can integrate into the EHR. Take its new wayfinding app, Children’s Go, as an example. Patients and their families can get to the patient portal and any other digital front doors they need from within Children’s Go, creating a streamlined digital patient experience.

That’s also really useful from a provider’s standpoint. Take a clinician who wants to send educational materials for the patient to view.

“When the caregiver enters that order in Epic to do that education, it shows up on the patient's TV screen and says, ‘Oh, you have an order to fulfill. You need to watch your education,’” Vuchak explained. “Once the patient in their room watches the education, it fulfills the order back in Epic. So, everything we're doing digitally, we tie back to the electronic medical record.”

Vuchak advised other healthcare organizations building out their digital front doors to take a similar approach, at least in terms of unifying the patient-facing experience. While some vendors are starting to link different patient engagement solutions together, it will also be useful to make sure everything will truly integrate with the EHR as a source of truth, he indicated.

Moreover, it will be critical to have vendor partners that will help the organization innovate according to patient needs.

“When you think about vendor partners, partners that can be agile, that have a development cycle, that can incorporate your great ideas into their processes, is really important,” Vuchak concluded.

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