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How healthcare can fix patient engagement

Brian Eastwood | June 18, 2014
The healthcare industry frequently discusses how to use technology to improve patient engagement, but it's just one step in a complex process that, done right, contributes to the much more formative process of patient empowerment.

Improving healthcare - or, more broadly, improving health - means improving the relationship that patients have with the physicians and institutions they visit. This discussion tends to focus on finding ways to engage with patients through processes that increasingly involve the use of familiar technology.

However, the healthcare industry's ongoing struggles to implement technology, combined with its strained relationship with patients, suggests that patient engagement on its own won't be enough to empower patients to take control of their health and wellness. A much bigger effort must be made.

Patient Engagement Just the First Step

Healthcare organizations can set up a patient portal, or startups can build an app, but it means nothing if patients don't use it at all or log in once but never again. Enticing patients to use the portal means including the types of functionality that modern ecommerce has led them to expect: Appointment scheduling, secure messaging, online bill payment, reputable educational resources, readable test results and the like.

The next step is patient education, an online and offline process of helping patients understand what a portal or app lets them do and how to do it. This includes letting patients know how their personal information will (and will not) be used. If this communication never happens, even the most robust patient portal will gather dust.

If that communication does happen, and users deem the portal or app to be worth their time, then they approach the point of patient activation. As healthcare leadership trainer Lisa Goren sees it, this happens when the proverbial switch has been flipped and a patient is present in the care process in a new way. In this case, they see the portal as an extension of, and asset to, the care process.

Only then, will healthcare reach a point of patient empowerment. Speaking at the recent Medical Informatics World conference, Dr. Susan Woods, an internist at the Portland (Ore.) VA Medical Center and author of the Shared Health Data blog, said patients need a say in the care that organizations provide. They don't want "quality care and efficiency" - which regulatory pressure forces healthcare to strive for - but, rather, to feel better.

"Most of what [patients] want can be summarized with 'Help me," Woods says.

Helping Patients Rarely Easy, Using Technology 'Like Herding Cats'

As anyone who has traversed the U.S. healthcare system will attest, help isn't always just around the corner.

At Medical Informatics World, Dr. O'Neill Britton, chief health information officer at Partners HealthCare, said hospitals continue to hold onto the brick-and-mortal ideal in an increasingly online world. "We don't even allow our patients to schedule their own appointments," he adds.

 

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