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Top Patient Outreach, Healthcare Marketing Tools & Strategies

Leading patient outreach and healthcare marketing tools include direct mailers, email and patient portal messaging, text messaging, and telephone outreach.

In response to growing healthcare consumerism, medical organizations are turning towards healthcare marketing strategies to support patient outreach.

Although healthcare marketing is an aspect of new patient acquisition, organizations are even looking to retail strategies for patient outreach and communication among existing patients. Particularly, organizations are working to drum up patient engagement in preventive care and to fill care gaps.

Care gaps are a key problem for providers engaging in value-based care, not only because they represent missed opportunities to flag potentially acute care problems before they grow costly and untenable, but also because getting patients in for preventive services is a key clinical quality measure.

Some organizations have found luck in adopting traditional retail strategies and integrating them into their healthcare marketing and patient outreach strategies, including:

  • Direct mailers
  • Email and patient portal messaging
  • Text message patient outreach
  • Telephone patient outreach

As patient engagement continues to dominate healthcare priorities, organizations should consider how often they push out patient outreach messages, ensuring they are still providing a good consumer experience.

Direct mail

Using direct mail for patient outreach may look like a postcard or a letter advertising a key service or providing patient education about certain care management practices.

Although other, more digitized strategies have also emerged, direct mail remains effective for those who do not have access to technologies or do not prefer to use technology. This may include low-income or older individuals.

In 2018, researchers found that a direct mail campaign was successful at compelling Medicaid beneficiaries to access breast cancer or colorectal screening. The direct mailers provided patient education about cancer screenings, navigational information like a clinic phone number, and a $20 incentive for completing the screening.

The researchers found folks who received the direct mailer were more likely to complete a breast cancer or colorectal cancer screening than those who did not, indicating the direct mail option was fruitful.

Although the $20 incentive was likely a key driver due to the population’s low average income, the researchers also noted that having a very updated database of recipient addresses meant it was likely the mailer truly reached a high proportion of the intended recipients.

But the world is becoming increasingly digitized, and more patients are opting to engage in their medical care using their smartphones.

The ubiquity of consumer technology, coupled with barriers to direct mailers like reaching a housing insecure population, makes other strategies like email and text messaging patient outreach ripe for a future of digital engagement.

Email, patient portal messaging

Email and patient portal messaging have taken the direct mail approach and updated it for the technology boom.

In 2022, researchers wrote in JAMA Network Open that patient portal outreach alerting patients to asynchronous smoking cessation programs helped increase the number of folks trying to quit. The patient portal messaging plus asynchronous care resulted in about 9 percent of study participants trying to quit smoking.

Patient portal outreach has also been helpful in increasing vaccination rates. A 2022 study in the Journal of General Internal Medicine showed that about 16 percent of those getting a patient portal outreach message about flu shots plus self-scheduling options got the jab; only about 14 percent not receiving outreach did the same.

Healthcare organizations may consider similar tactics over traditional email. Email outreach can bypass issues with patient portal use and adoption, like remembering passwords, as most people use their emails for other purposes outside of healthcare. That said, email patient outreach does require healthcare organizations to capture patient email addresses and update as needed.

Text messaging patient outreach

Text message patient outreach, sent through SMS, is bringing healthcare marketing tactics directly to the consumer. Healthcare organizations can use a patient’s mobile phone number to send tailored patient communications directly to the patient’s phone.

Anecdotally, healthcare organizations have said text message patient outreach is the most effective medium for connecting with healthcare consumers. Everyone uses text messages, organizations have said, and patients address text messages more often and more quickly than they do emails.

“The move to embrace a solution that had text messaging capabilities is in part in response to our patient population,” Kaushal Challa, the senior assistant vice president of Ambulatory Care Services at NYC Health + Hospitals, which has used text messaging for patient communications, said in a previous interview. “Most people have cell phones, but our patients rely on their cell phones at a higher rate than the average.”

“There has been a historical perception, a misperception, that a poorer overall patient population might not be as tech-savvy, and actually the opposite is true,” Challa continued. “Our patients rely almost exclusively on mobile phones at a higher rate than the average.”

The data backs this up; text message patient outreach for a COVID-19 vaccine campaign proved just as effective as telephone patient outreach.

Healthcare organizations are beginning to adopt text message outreach tools that integrate into the EHR and let organization leaders tailor messaging. For example, an organization can choose to only send patient outreach texts to those who are missing a key preventive screening or who newly qualify for a certain shot or test.

“One of the great things is that you can target pretty much anything you want to,” Chuck Ray, executive director of the Mississippi-based Children’s Medical Group, stated in an interview about the organization’s text message outreach. “We've targeted things like seventh grade entry. In our state, you have to have a certain vaccine before you can go into the seventh grade.”

“We can look at the kids who are 11, 12, 13 years old, who are going into seventh grade and then send a specific targeted health campaign out that's informing them of that requirement and encouraging them to schedule an appointment to get their checkup and get their vaccine,” he continued. “And it provides a direct link for them to be able to click straight through into our online scheduling portal and schedule an appointment.”

Interactive voice response (IVR), telephone patient outreach

According to IBM, interactive voice response lets consumers interact via the telephone without a live agent.

“Interactive voice response, or IVR, is an automated telephone system that combines pre-recorded messages or text-to-speech technology with a dual-tone multi-frequency (DTMF) interface to engage callers, allowing them to provide and access information without a live agent,” IBM writes on its website.

If the IVR system is not able to determine what the user is saying, the call will forward to a live agent.

IVR in healthcare is not very common, at least for patient outreach. Although some healthcare organizations are using some form of IVR in their call centers either to answer patient questions or book appointments, efficacy data is still limited.

For example, 2020 data from the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that IVR calls encouraging flu vaccine uptake yielded little improvement in vaccination rates. Patient portal messaging was more effective, the researchers said.

That said, IVR may be an area that gains more steam in the medical industry, offering more use cases to determine its effectiveness.

Although IVR is only now being adopted in healthcare, telephone patient outreach has long been a mainstay. Telephone patient outreach can be managed by humans in a call center reaching out to individuals who have care gaps and assisting with patient navigation.

Data has shown that telephone patient outreach can be more effective than other low-tech options, like direct mailers. Researchers from Penn Medicine reported in April 2022 that about half of folks receiving telephone patient outreach went into the clinic for a needed colorectal cancer screening; only about 18 percent of those getting a direct mailer did the same.

Telephone patient outreach during the post-discharge care management phase was also effective at reducing emergency department readmission, separate data has shown.

Telephone patient outreach is beneficial because nearly everyone has a phone number; it is harder for patients to slip through the cracks the way they might for email or text message patient outreach.

Using direct marketing in healthcare judiciously

Regardless of patient outreach and marketing strategy, healthcare organizations should beware of overburdening the consumer, multiple studies have indicated. Researchers from Louisiana-based Willis-Knighton Health System, for example, said too many messages regardless of the medium could be a turn-off for healthcare consumers.

Ultimately, there are two adverse outcomes of over-marketing to patients, the researchers wrote in a review of direct marketing practices in healthcare. Foremost, a high volume of marketing messages could be viewed as overly intrusive.

“Direct marketing, courtesy of its direct engagement attribute, has the potential to intrude on the privacy of recipients, something which is magnified when organizations carelessly and selfishly deploy the medium of communication,” they wrote. “Such nuisances have harmed the reputation of direct marketing, necessitating extreme care in its deployment.”

Healthcare organizations should always go for an opt-in approach for direct marketing, allowing individuals to indicate whether and how they want to receive patient outreach from their healthcare providers. Messages should also come with an opt-out selection.

There are other unintended consequences of over-messaging, the Willis-Knighton Health System researchers added. With too many messages, there is the risk the patient overlooks something important.

“Stories of people visiting their mailboxes, grabbing parcels, and disposing of junk mail without as much as a second glance abound, as do accounts of individuals opening their email inboxes and deleting messages en masse, not wishing to take the time to screen the sea of solicitations often flooding their accounts,” the researchers explained.

Moreover, a high volume of marketing messages may lead some to unsubscribe from patient outreach modalities. In a 2021 analysis of text message and interactive voice response (IVR) patient outreach, researchers determined how much is too much patient outreach.

Those who received more than 10 text messages from the provider were more likely to opt out of the outreach campaign, the researchers found. Those who received more than 20 annually were three times more likely to opt out than those who received only two texts each year.

Healthcare organizations are beginning to combat the volume issue by adopting systems that tailor patient outreach. For example, a healthcare organization may send flu shot reminders to the entire patient population in August; in October, it may only message those who do not yet have a flu shot on record.

That means only those who need the flu shot reminder receive one.

Not every healthcare organization will—or should—adopt the same healthcare marketing strategies to guide their patient outreach plan. Understanding the patient population and their preferences will be key to ensuring organizations are strategic in patient outreach methods.

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