The healthcare industry was beginning to invest in digital transformation well before the pandemic — making investments here and there to leverage various technologies across the patient journey. But historically, progress was slow and not without significant challenges like:
- data sharing capabilities and regulations
- inappropriate automations
- dysfunctional workflows
- the overall cost of investing in new technologies
These were all ongoing hurdles to progress, but the pandemic mashed the transformation accelerator pedal to the floor.
The speed and scale at which digital transformation in healthcare needed to take place was now and global. Out of necessity, virtual office visits, online symptom checkers, automation tools for triaging requests, and many more all sprang into being in a short matter of weeks. Innovative digital technologies and the development of new and improved channels for delivery allowed doctors to continue to deliver care to patients in need.
Now, as we continue to adapt, the healthcare industry must continue to evolve, recognizing that significant investments in digital transformation are now just table stakes to delivering top-quality patient care. Healthcare leaders need to adopt a digital-first, patient-centric approach across all areas of their organizations to meet the new expectations of their patients and providers.
From our experience in working with healthcare technology innovators and health systems, we have uncovered five areas where healthcare leaders can focus their investments in digital transformation to meet and exceed patient and provider expectations.
1. Increase digital front office options for greater flexibility
Patients want access to their records and lab results and receive appointment reminders and provider communications — and they want that access on their terms. A recent PEW Health Information Technology (HIT) survey found that almost 80% of respondents wanted to access and view their electronic health records through a website, an online portal, a mobile app, or electronically in some other way.
While digital options for access to medical records and data is certainly valuable, it’s only one part of the patient experience. Flexibility also translates to providing choice, such as having the option to select the type of communication method they prefer for appointment reminders or being able to schedule an appointment online instead of via phone.
Flexibility is the key here — some patients will always prefer to speak to someone directly, but others want self-serve options. Providing patients with digital options, such as provider portals or chatbots for messaging their providers, scheduling appointments, and refilling prescriptions can be relatively easy wins in improving patient experience.
2. Keep (and add more) telehealth services to improve access to care
Not every healthcare visit can be, or should be, conducted virtually. However, telehealth visits make a lot of sense for routine care, and the pandemic showed that patients want this option.
Prior to the pandemic, Medicare only covered telehealth services for members living in rural areas, with restrictions on where members could receive services and which providers could deliver them. In March of 2020, Medicare made the decision to extend telehealth coverage to all members.
Medicare members were quick to take advantage of this visit model. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 27% of Medicare beneficiaries had a telehealth visit in the summer and fall of 2020. In February 2020, pre-pandemic, that number was 0.1%. Though the decision to allow telehealth visits was initially made to allow members to access healthcare services while avoiding in-person contact, its popularity persists, with Medicare, and now many other insurers, covering these types of visits, even as in-person activity returns to normal.
The Kaiser data also found that, among beneficiaries whose healthcare providers offered telehealth appointments, a greater share of those who used these services had disabilities, low incomes, and were in communities of color. This data suggests that the expansion of telehealth coverage may help more disadvantaged populations continue to access necessary care.
Telehealth services will not ever fully replace the need for (or occurrence of) in-person visits, but they can certainly remove barriers for patients and caregivers:
- Access to transportation
- Amount of time spent away from work
- Less time spent in waiting rooms
- Ability to access a specialist, even in a rural area
- Fewer opportunities to spread disease
- Potential for lower costs passed along to the patient
3. Leverage technology to increase data sharing and privacy and security
In order to deliver top-quality care, the ideal is that patient health information should be readily available to all healthcare providers no matter the network. At the same time, patients have expectations about the privacy and security of their personal health data. HIPAA in the U.S. and GDPR in the E.U. have attempted to outline best practices and limitations, keeping the patient primary in mind. These laws outline the assurance of information protection without compromising a healthcare provider’s ability to do their job.
Even though data breaches still take place, digital records are safer than paper records. Blockchain, known best for its ties to cryptocurrency, is a computerized database of transactions. Shared across a network of computers, it allows the exchange of information without the need of a third party. Applying blockchain technology to the healthcare industry could improve information security management; healthcare data can be communicated and analyzed while preserving privacy and security.
Countries like Australia and the UK have started experimenting with blockchain technology to manage medical records and transactions among patients, healthcare providers, and insurance companies. In both examples, decentralized networks of computers handle the blockchain and simultaneously register every transaction, and detect conflicting information. Records are not only accurate but also harder to hack.
4. Meet patients where they’re at with voice and wearable technology
The adage “If you build it, they will come” does not translate to digital technology adoption in healthcare. The most robust, well-functioning app or device will not be adopted if patients are unable to use it in everyday life. For example, iOS users will not download an Android app. And a new smartwatch that’s only compatible with Apple products won’t get traction with PC and Android device users.
But when technology meets patients where they are, combined with technology that they can understand, adoption increases. The data collected can be helpful to healthcare providers and enable them to better guide patient care. Wearable devices and IoT-based health sensors can track a patient’s conditions and activities remotely, from their temperature and hydration to a fall taking place. Healthcare providers can review this data and make recommendations to patients, providing more specific, personalized care. And the data collected from these devices can be used in conjunction with machine learning to make predictions based on the data.
Technology can also be leveraged to assist patients with disabilities. For example, the NHS in the UK used voice technology, partnering with Amazon’s Alexa device. Alexa offered vetted advice to common health questions like “What are symptoms of appendicitis?” freeing up queries to healthcare providers. Elderly and blind patients unable to access the internet received health information for common illnesses and receive reminders of when to take medication.
Patients want to access and use patient portals and apps, but the technology needs to be functional and intuitive, meeting them where they are. If the technology is too difficult to access or use, adoption will remain minimal and certain patient populations will experience reduced care.
5. Automate administrative tasks to focus on patient care
The growing number of administrative tasks imposed on physicians, their practices, and, by extension, their patients adds unnecessary costs to the health care system. Excessive administrative tasks also divert time and focus away from providing actual care to patients.
Increasingly, tools like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) are being used across healthcare systems in areas such as administration, billing, and human resources, fulfilling rote but necessary functions that can save time and resources. The investment in RPA can result in more time spent directly with patients.
Natural Language Processing (NLP), a branch of Artificial Intelligence (AI), is also more readily available to patients in the form of voice-activated assistants so that they can more intuitively make appointments or get their test results. And NLP is working for healthcare providers as real-time transcription capabilities so they can focus on quality face-to-face time with their patients instead of data entry.
However, it is important to determine the appropriate tasks to automate so as to avoid adversely impacting the patient experience. Developing an automation strategy can help create the perfect blend of automated interactions and human interactions that will meet today’s patient and provider expectations.
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Evolving patient care through digital transformation in healthcare
As we evolve the digital tools, apps, and resources pioneered during the pandemic, some will fall away, some will become staples, and still, others will serve as the inspiration for further innovation. But one thing is for sure: we’ll never go back to the way things were. The technologies proved their worth in solving some vexing, long-term problems and provided greater care convenience for patients as well as providers.
It is now up to healthcare leaders to continue to push ahead with digital-first, patient-centric investments in technology, integrations, and solutions that will continue to meet patient and provider expectations and improve patient care. There are still many other tasks and areas in which digital transformation in healthcare can help not only further enhance patient care, but also improve patient satisfaction and health outcomes.
If there is one lesson we can take away from the pandemic, it is that when we need to, we can rapidly transform healthcare processes and procedures for the better through digital technologies. We should continue investing in this upward trajectory. Fusion is here for you if you want to talk about how to launch or continue digital transformation efforts in your healthcare organization.