Beyond the Portal: Why Successful Digital-First Organizations Prioritize Engagement Over Technology

Updated on July 22, 2022

By Shyam Karunakaran, Senior Vice President & Market Head – Health Plans, and Shitang Patel, Asst. Vice President – Health Plans

By Shyam Karunakaran and Shitang Patel

The “digital-first” movement promises to change healthcare delivery dramatically, and many organizations are eager to jump aboard. A multitude of “digital front door” solutions are springing up—from clinical solutions like telehealth platforms to wellness offerings and mental health applications. 

It’s not only patients and providers who are embracing the potential benefits of digital-first, either. Many payers are starting to expand into virtual-first plans as well.  

Although digital-first holds exciting prospects, healthcare organizations must be careful not to fall into the common trap of looking at it solely as a technology challenge. A digital-first approach requires much more than just a technology upgrade. It demands an entirely different way of looking at member and patient engagement.

Focus on engagement  

For the past decade or so, healthcare organizations largely have equated digital engagement with the development of member or patient portals. Most of these portals have been built with technology architectures that pre-date the 2010 timeframe, so it’s logical to question whether now is the time to update the technology. 

While it may sound counterintuitive, technology should notbe the primary consideration of digital-first strategies. Indeed, the phrase “digital-first” is a somewhat unfortunate misnomer because it puts too much emphasis on the means to an end rather than the end goal itself. A genuine digital-first strategy goes well beyond portal technology—or any other single technology, for that matter.

What healthcare organizations need to think about instead is how to establish an engaged community. After all, the real purpose of a digital-first strategy is to cultivate highly engaged member or patient populations that realize a superior, integrated experience. The question healthcare organizations should be asking themselves is this: 

How can we establish a vibrant member or patient community and engage with it irrespective of whether its members are obligated to engage with us? 

Few healthcare organizations are strategizing toward that idea to date. Yet those that want to benefit from a digital-first environment must stop focusing on revamping their portals and begin analyzing their user experience holistically. Technology can’t be the nucleus of their strategy, or they risk missing the forest for the trees. The “engagement” or “service” aspect must come first. What’s required is a digital-first, principles-based reboot in which technology is merely an enabler of better service and a better overall experience. 

Enable better service

Technology as a service enabler is not a new concept, of course. Examples abound in the consumer sector, with Uber as the quintessential illustration. The company began as a transportation service to provide an alternative to taxicabs, and has since expanded into a delivery service. Uber now can transport people to an airport or groceries to a home with equal ease and convenience. 

From a healthcare perspective, what’s interesting is why Uber experienced such explosive growth that it transformed the consumer landscape. It’s not because the company offered innovative technology. Mobile devices and automotive navigation systems were available years before Uber’s launch. But the company did take the time to identify a service need and learn what people wanted from a transportation service. Then, with that knowledge, it designed a platform attractive to users.  

We see a similar approach from digital-first entrants into healthcare. Let’s say someone with a mild, already-diagnosed respiratory illness wants a prescription to treat their persistent cough. These days, they essentially have two options: 

  • Option 1: Try to remember their username and password to log into their payer’s portal, figure out the nearest in-network and available doctor, then reach out to that doctor to schedule a visit.
  • Option 2: Click into a platform such as Zocdoc that automatically serves up a list of relevant providers, and book the visit. 

Either way, the result is a provider visit that produces the desired prescription for cough medicine. Both options leverage technology, but the difference is service. Option #2 is a great example of how to establish an engaged community, as discussed earlier. People are more likely to repeatedly engage with the technology offered by Option #2 because it serves their needs more conveniently and delivers a better experience.  

Navigate change management

As the examples above illustrate, achieving a digital-first environment in healthcare demands a change-management process that intensifies the service-industry mentality. To do that, healthcare organizations must:

  • Recognize that there are no quick fixes. A true digital health strategy is, at its core, a long-term change-management initiative. Organizations must evaluate their objectives, mindsets, processes, and supporting technologies. Those that adhere to John P. Kotter’s eight-step change-management process—or other similar processes—understand the need to do much groundwork before implementing change and maintaining the momentum. 
  • Evaluate change through the eyes of a member or patient. Traditionally, healthcare payers and providers tend to be very siloed, with little inter-organizational or inter-departmental communication. Yet, as far as a member or patient is concerned, any given insurance company or provider group is just one big entity. Members and patients expect—and increasingly will demand—a seamless experience. 

Therefore, healthcare organizations must be the channel that enables seamless healthcare services. If they don’t, they risk losing control of their members or patients to those that do.

  • Redesign internal processes, supporting technologies, and data architecture to enable an integrated experience. Innovative healthcare organizations are beginning to contemplate how to alter their digital architectures to allow for an integrated experience. The reality, of course, is that it will take quite some time before organizations can deliver the fully integrated, person-centric healthcare experiences their members and patients seek. National interoperability standards and regulations, along with near-universal adoption, likely will be necessary to bring that vision to fruition. 

In the meantime, however, healthcare organizations can follow the example of consumer innovators like Uber. They can lean into a service mindset by asking two key questions: 

  1. How can we engage existing members or patients using technology? 
  2. How can we attract people who are not already members or patients through our technologies?

Commit for success 

There is little doubt that digital-first healthcare is here to stay. While the idea holds tremendous promise, healthcare organizations must guard against thinking of it as a “technology project.” Don’t be misled by the moniker. Successful adoption of a digital-first environment will only come to those organizations that understand it for what it truly is: a new strategy to strengthen member or patient engagement. 

That’s not to say that revamping technology isn’t necessary, but it’s secondary to building a fresh approach to care that attracts and engages people. Creating a digital-first environment takes time, dedication, and an in-depth analysis of processes, tools, and data. Ultimately, it is an exercise in change management that can revolutionize healthcare when properly planned and executed. 

About the Authors:

Shyam Karunakaran is Senior Vice President & Market Head for Health Plans at CitiusTech, a partner of choice to the world’s largest healthcare and life sciences organizations to accelerate digital innovation, drive business transformation, and enable industry-wide convergence. Karunakaran has more than 20 years of experience in the U.S. healthcare industry across payers, providers, pharma/life sciences, and IT companies. 

Shitang Patel is Assistant Vice President for Health Plans at CitiusTech. Patel is a healthcare strategist and specializes in helping healthcare organizations operationalize their strategies with business and digital transformation. 

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