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Top Health IT Components of Medicine’s Digital Front Door

Talk of the digital front door is leading the patient experience conversation these days, but what health IT components actually comprise that proverbial door?

The list of health IT systems included as part of healthcare’s digital front door is growing—fast. For those catching onto the buzzword, it has become clear that unlocking that digital front door requires a curated suite of patient engagement technologies that seamlessly flow into both virtual and in-person care.

Although dubbed the digital front door, these technologies span more than just patient access.

“A digital front door is anything but a front door,” Mutaz Shegewi, IDC Health Insights research director, told PatientEngagementHIT in a June 2021 interview. “It's much more than that. It's a technology vehicle. It's a fabric. It's a layer that spans from and that scales that digital and virtual care journey to meet the patient where they are.”

A digital front door refers to the technologies patients use to interact with a healthcare organization, from the moment they fall ill through to when they leave the clinic or hospital.

What Is the Digital Front Door?

In order to understand the key health IT involved in unlocking a digital front door, one must first understand what the digital front door is and is not.

In short, the digital front door refers to the virtual means by which a patient engages with her healthcare provider. This could mean a literal digital front door—conducting an online provider search, using the patient portal to book an appointment, and then having a telehealth visit—but most experts agree it also moves beyond that.

Rather, the digital front door is healthcare’s way of meeting a rise in consumerism. Patients, increasingly responsible for much of the cost of healthcare, are becoming discerning consumers who want their medical care to engage them the way Amazon or the hotel industry does. They want multiple touchpoints, and they want it to be convenient.

“We're talking about the beginning of an entirely new experience in health care, where the future is that people are entering or constantly connected to their healthcare team and partner,” Summer Knight, MD, managing director in Deloitte Consulting’s Life Sciences & Health Care practice, told PatientEngagementHIT in summer of 2020.

“It's an attractive experience that has established a very different relationship between individuals, such as all of us and their healthcare team. It has a foundation in digital technology and it's actually able to fluidly move between the virtual and the in-person when needed.”

At each step of opening the digital front door, healthcare organizations need to identify the virtual technology needed and how it will seamlessly flow into either another virtual connection or an in-person interaction. Back-end health IT interoperability, strong marketing, and a unified online and in-person presence will be instrumental in enabling that.

And in doing so, healthcare organizations can leverage a number of patient engagement technologies to create that wraparound experience that so defines the digital front door.

Below, PatientEngagementHIT outlines some of the top health IT that make up the digital front door. However, considering the pace of health technology innovation, this list is not exhaustive.

Digital symptom checkers

Digital symptom checkers can help patients assess and self-triage to appropriate care sites. Often powered by chatbot technology, these tools help patients determine whether they should visit their primary care provider, an urgent care clinic, the emergency department, or simply ride out their symptoms at home.

At their best, digital online symptom checkers will direct patients to the appropriate next steps based on clinical best practice. For example, a patient presenting with symptoms of pneumonia might be directed to an online appointment scheduling system that can get them seen by a medical professional as soon as possible.

Online appointment scheduling

Perhaps the most literal interpretation of the digital front door, online appointment scheduling allows patients to book a slot via their computer, smartphone, or tablet. Some healthcare organizations leverage the patient portal for online scheduling, while most have set up separate systems that align with their digital call centers and patient intake technology.

Online appointment scheduling has its draws for some populations, but healthcare organizations may consider maintaining their call centers for booking as well. Centralizing the online and call center scheduling systems will help streamline this process.

Online provider search

Online provider search makes it possible for patients to scan provider directories online and find a clinician who can fulfill patient needs. These systems can satisfy new patients who are looking for a new provider, as well as keep existing patients in-network.

For example, large health systems might employ an online provider search tool to ensure patients who work with the system’s primary care offices might also visit one of the health system’s specialty providers.

Patient intake technologies

Virtual patient intake technologies allow patients to fill out their paperwork at home prior to a healthcare encounter, as opposed to in the waiting room. This process shortens the waiting room period and makes it easier for a patient to transition directly into the exam room, resulting in a better patient experience.

Patient intake technologies can also ease claims management, as it gives patient access staff the opportunity to scrub claims and amend patient or health plan information before the visit.

Virtual waiting rooms

Virtual waiting rooms came into the healthcare zeitgeist as a patient safety mitigation strategy during the aftermath of COVID-19’s first surge. As part of an effort to keep waiting room traffic at a minimum, healthcare organizations leverage virtual waiting rooms to keep patients in their cars or in designated outdoor spaces.

Using virtual waiting room technology, patients can use a link or a text message to alert the office they have arrived and then receive instructions from the office. Usually, a follow-up text message or a healthcare provider will alert the patient it is time to come into the building.

Telehealth visits

Telehealth visits—both synchronous and asynchronous, telephonic and video chat—are central components of the digital front door. These tools make healthcare access more convenient for patients and providers across the country, and have driven efficiency in some preventive care and chronic disease management.

Digital billing, price transparency, digital billing

Digital patient financial experience tools, like price transparency systems and online bill payment, make it easier for consumers to book shoppable healthcare services.

First, patients may use price transparency tools to gauge both the quality and the cost of certain healthcare providers. This enables the patient to make informed decisions about their healthcare access.

After the visit, online bill payments make it easier for patients to fulfill their financial responsibility. Creating this digital touchpoint not only improves the patient financial experience, but increases the odds a healthcare organization can make patient collections.

Choosing the digital transformation journey

Of course, most healthcare organizations will not be able to stand up an entirely digital presence all at once, although the COVID-19 pandemic has sped up digital adoption; data from IDC Health Insights showed that the average healthcare organization complete two year’s worth of digital transformation in just the first two months of the pandemic.

Still, building the digital front door requires notable capital investment, and according to IDC’s Shegewi, organizations need to map that out.

Planning the digital transformation journey—literally selecting which components of the digital front door will come next—will require both provider and patient education. Organization leaders need to justify the investment, he said, but patients and providers won’t use a system if they don’t know it’s there.

“But again, if you think about providers being decision-makers, being more educated on the benefits of cutting-edge initiatives and these new kind of pandemic driven use cases like digital front door,” Shegewi offered. “With that awareness, and with that understanding and with the proper buy-in and collaboration between teams, a lot of those challenges around digital transformation can be alleviated.”

To get there, organizations need to assemble the key stakeholders in digital transformation projects, ranging from clinical IT leaders, to business teams, to consumer stakeholders, to the patients.

“There needs to be an initiative to first, map and outline of all the existing digital touchpoints in the service and to identify any gaps,” Shegewi recommended.

This needs to be extremely patient-centric. Understanding patient and consumer needs will help organizations better understand where they currently are in the journey toward opening the digital front door.

“It's going to be very hard for provider organizations, especially nowadays, to do everything at once,” Shegewi cautioned. “They might prioritize the front end, if there's nothing there already.”

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