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By Kamal Anand
Healthcare leaders have been navigating persistent staff shortages and high labor costs for decades, but major economic shifts and the COVID-19 pandemic—now dragging into a third year—have intensified the problem. Workforce woes are expected to continue throughout 2022 as hospitals and health systems face critical levels of staff burnout. The results of recent industry reports are telling as clinical workers consider exiting the field at higher rates than usual.
The effects of the US healthcare labor squeeze have long been felt by those working within the industry, but patients are beginning to take notice as well. In fact, half of all Americans seeking care recently reported having a negative experience they directly attributed to worker shortages. And patients aren’t the only ones frustrated. Staff are overburdened with their workloads, which includes inefficient manual outreach efforts to patients that result in unanswered phone calls and unreturned voicemails. With fewer workers and rising expectations from consumers, healthcare executives are being asked to meet aggressive experience, clinical and financial targets despite limited staff.
To meet these ambitious goals, many organizations are turning to digital platforms to automate burdensome tasks and workflows that directly impact the patient experience.
Healthcare staff want to focus on patient care, not phone calls
Routine tasks like appointment scheduling, care follow-up, vaccines and referral management are all critical for maintaining regular clinic volumes and keeping patients healthy. Yet these workflows are time-consuming and have historically required back-and-forth manual phone calls and documentation within the EHR. Adding tasks like these to an already strained workforce make it difficult for hospitals and health systems to adequately hire and devote staff time, contributing to a poor experience for patients who increasingly expect more.
Health system leaders can rapidly relieve pressure on overworked staff by implementing streamlined digital solutions for common but tedious patient engagement workflows. Automating much of this outreach and engaging patients via digital communications eliminates unnecessary frustration due to time spent on manual communications (including phone tag) and minimizes the need for manual data entry. Plus, enabling staff to automatically connect with patients via text, voice, email, or one-on-one live chat can drastically improve the patient experience given patients prefer these channels. All of this means overloaded healthcare staff can focus their time and energy on direct patient care.
Patients demand a convenient, retail-like experience
When healthcare decision makers are considering digital engagement solutions, the following best practices can help to keep the focus on patient experience, while allowing hospitals and health systems to maximize ROI without sacrificing other key objectives.
Reach patients where they are and when they want. Digital interaction between patients and their healthcare provider must be user-friendly and should mimic these individuals’ retail experiences. Appointment scheduling or rescheduling, for instance, can be completed at the patient’s convenience using interactive texting, their preferred channel.
Personalize this outreach via a variety of channels. This includes communication through SMS (text messages), phone calls and email—all of which allow for asynchronous, bidirectional messages. When staff can reach out using patient-preferred methods, with relevant, meaningful information, patients are more likely to engage in their care.
Enable staff and patients to close the loop with EHR integration. Allowing patients to respond to outreach and automatically document this back to the EHR means neither staff nor patients have to pick up the phone (or worse, play phone tag). Plus, by embedding engagement in the EHR system staff already use every day, the hours spent acclimating to a new platform or solution are reduced.
Aligning the wants and needs of healthcare staff and patients in practice
One healthcare organization that implemented automated, digital patient engagement has already seen a positive ROI. In New York, a prominent primary care network with more than half a million members improved patient compliance and reduced last minute cancellations due to bad prep through automation and just-in-time communication of pre-procedure instructions for colonoscopies. With the right information reaching patients at the right time, the health system saw a reduction in bad prep rates and canceled procedures without investing additional staff time to call each patient individually.
Given the amplification of staffing challenges, the most agile organizations are leveraging tools at their disposal to streamline outdated, manual methods of outreach. These digital engagement solutions are not only helpful for leaders looking to alleviate worker burnout and enhance the patient experience, but they help patients stay more engaged with their own health. For a variety of intricate communication workflows, automation can allow clinicians and support staff to focus their energy on the most personalized, meaningful patient care.
Kamal Anand is an innovative executive and entrepreneur passionate about bringing to market impactful enterprise technology. He is currently Senior Vice President of Growth for Intrado Healthcare. Previously, Kamal was co-founder or an early executive of five technology startups, four of which were acquired, and one of which went IPO.