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Building the Digital Front Door to Meet Consumer, Provider Needs

The digital front door can support a better consumer and provider experience, helping to enable good clinical outcomes and build patient loyalty.

Note: Portions of this article have been updated for clarity. Healthcare doesn’t just happen Monday through Friday between the hours of nine to five. Patients seek it on the weekends, after they sign off from work, and before they drop their kids off at school in the morning. Healthcare providers are finding that they need to invest in digital front door strategies in order to meet consumer needs.

“We're a 24-hour society,” according to Robert Schad, vice president of product development at TeleVox. “We go to Walmart or whatever your favorite market is at any time of day. We expect to be able to buy the things that we need to buy when we want to buy them. And our healthcare is no different.”

This concept of healthcare at any time in any place isn’t a new concept; it’s healthcare consumerism, and it’s been top-of-mind for healthcare executives for years. To meet the needs of patients, who are increasingly paying for their own medical care and therefore comparing services to those offered in retail or banking or travel, medical experts have invested in omnichannel patient engagement technologies that are built to service patients anywhere.

While the patient engagement technologies comprising the digital front door aren’t new, it's been only in the past three years that healthcare organizations have had the opportunity to get serious about building a digital front door.  Most organizations have found it hard to make an investment in these strategies because the reimbursement mechanisms weren't in place.

In 2020, COVID-19 changed those rules, as demand for remote and virtual patient engagement forced policymakers to rethink how they’d pay for digital healthcare encounters. Once patients started to receive their healthcare differently, they got used to the digital engagement just like in other service sectors.

With fewer than one in 10 healthcare organizations excel in healthcare consumerism, and patient demand continues to rise, healthcare organizations need to capitalize on this moment to differentiate themselves with a well-thought-out digital front door.

Patient considerations for the digital front door

The digital front door is comprised of numerous different patient engagement technologies that serve the patients across the clinical encounter, such as online self-scheduling, digital wayfinding, SMS appointment reminders, digital patient intake, digital bill pay, and online provider search.

Before healthcare organizations can begin to open the digital front door, they need to consider their strategy for building it and how the different pieces will fit together, Schad said.

“One of the biggest challenges that organizations have is around a common user experience itself or the user interface,” he explained. “There's not one vendor—and I'm not necessarily saying that one vendor is the right route to go—but there is not a one-vendor solution, so healthcare systems are having to build their own or buy from multiple vendors or look to an aggregator to aggregate things together.”

That piecemeal approach to the digital front door isn’t always successful in terms of patient satisfaction.

“Organizations have got to try to bring a common feel for a patient, because nothing's more frustrating for a patient, who might not be technically savvy already, to have to learn five different systems in order to communicate using this omnichannel experience,” Schad added.

Organizations may consider the options for unifying that digital front door, either by going with an all-in-one vendor or working with a company that helps string together disparate systems with a unified look and feel.

Moreover, healthcare organizations need to consider which components of the digital front door they want. Schad said organizations should have a wealth of information available to them through things like interacting with the community and assessing patient satisfaction surveys.

“When they do patient satisfaction surveys, they're getting force feedback from patients, and patients are definitely of the mindset that they're going to give their inputs to organizations,” he stated. “Those will help drive the ability to focus on what is the most appropriate way to engage individuals.”

Organization leaders should be wary of avoiding certain technologies because they primarily serve a certain demographic. Providers that treat mostly older adults, for example, might shy away from setting up an encompassing digital front door because they fear older adults might not use it. Although some older adults prefer a personal touch in their healthcare, that mindset is becoming outdated. In March 2020, even before the COVID-19 pandemic made health IT ubiquitous, data showed that patient portal use among older adults was soaring. “Seniors also benefit from a digital front door strategy, too, because in many cases, they're in place,” Schad pointed out. “They don't have the capability to drive, they don't necessarily have a mechanism to get them to the doctor's office or the hospital. And so having technologies to be able to support them can be a useful thing for them too.”

Provider considerations for the digital front door

It’s not just about what the patient wants, but also what the organization needs. Organizations that are trying to lower hospital readmission rates might invest in digital patient education and virtual post-discharge summaries to help support care management outside of the clinic or hospital. In this example, digital post-discharge instructions will support care management, lower readmission rates, support better reimbursement, and help the organization pay for the technology and invest in future tools. And while supporting care management can produce better outcomes and reimbursements, a frictionless patient experience will help promote patient loyalty. Patients who trust that they can lean on their provider organization, who can access the information that they need how and when they need it, are more likely to keep going back to that organization.

And In an industry increasingly defined by high burnout rates—half of primary care physicians under age 55 said they experience burnout—securing a digital process for these patient interactions is essential.

A digital front door strategy that includes automated appointment reminders takes this duty off the plates of care team members. Virtual assistants or digital symptom checkers help keep clinicians focused on in-person patient care. Organizations that offer digital wayfinding and online staff directories can save call center staff from outlining this information and allow them to focus on complex patient needs.

That system—one that serves the patient, the provider, and better outcomes—is within healthcare’s reach. When digital tools catch up with consumer sentiment and demand, healthcare organizations will have a clear opening for the digital front door.

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