Where Technology and Patient Engagement Meet

By Matt Phillion

The pandemic has highlighted just how much patient engagement matters. With fewer in-person appointments and more remote care, maintaining quality means finding innovative ways to engage patients. Healthcare organizations are combining data, technology, and engagement strategies to enhance care delivery, from educating patients to work toward their recovery goals to ensuring providers can intervene in real time to stave off complications, readmissions, and other reasons for patient dissatisfaction.

Heading into 2022, where does the industry stand with improving patient engagement, and where are we headed?

“I think there’s been a universal acceptance from the healthcare community, a global understanding that patient engagement is a critical piece in striving toward good patient outcomes,” says Bronwyn Spira, CEO and founder of Force Therapeutics. “In light of new value-based models, we can’t drive quality patient experiences without a robust engagement strategy.”

It’s become widely accepted, Spira notes, that the patient needs to be a pivotal partner in their own recovery. “We’re here today because of the overwhelming evidence that engaged patients do better, cost less, and are more satisfied,” she says.

The challenge is implementation

The industry has identified the benefits of better patient engagement, Spira says. However, the difficulty lies not in convincing the healthcare community of the benefits, but in implementing infrastructure and process around patient engagement.

“What I think health systems are grappling with is not if the patient should be more engaged, but how to instrument that engagement and optimize it at scale,” she says.

Spira says healthcare faces this challenge because, like many industries, it is in the middle of a people crisis. Engaging patients used to mean that healthcare workers would spend hours calling multiple patients to deliver the same information. Now, health systems can rely on purpose-built engagement platforms to alleviate that pressure on their employees’ time. Implementing workflows that incorporate this type of technology is a scalable way to run a business.

“We’ve lost critical hospital employees to COVID, to burnout, to vaccine mandates. As a result, healthcare workers are now forced to manage greater volumes of patients who are potentially sicker, driving the burnout cycle for those still in their roles,” says Spira. “What we have is a health system trying to figure out how to deliver quality patient care with fewer, more burned-out workers.”

The other challenge for the industry is that patients have become more savvy consumers. They have exposure to what good healthcare looks like and can seek it out, says Spira. “During COVID, healthcare systems that have made the right investments in good delivery systems have survived, while those that have continually thrown people at the problem are in a world of hurt right now.”

Better delivery systems involve technology that helps create sustainable, efficient, and optimizable workflows, she says. By automating repetitive, low-value tasks, providers are able to tackle high-impact activities during their precious one-on-one time with patients.

“It sounds like a no-brainer, but it is key to implement purpose-built technology that has empathy, that uses artificial intelligence or machine learning to be sustainable,” says Spira.

Using AI in healthcare requires a nuanced approach, Spira says. “Healthcare AI needs to include an element of clinical intelligence,” she says. “Taking clinical learnings from patients—such as their outcomes and the speed of their recovery or return to work—and determining what they need as a demographic group can help inform and standardize future care delivery.”

“It’s algorithmic to an extent, but it’s also very personalized,” she explains. “Healthcare is very personal, and every patient has their own unique challenges. Healthcare providers understand that, and some worry that personalization may be lost with the implementation of technology. However, in choosing the right platform to partner with, this does not need to be the case.”

As an example, Spira cites a high-volume orthopedic practice where Force Therapeutics was able to save the physician’s assistant 7.8 hours a week in phone calls through automation—hours that could then be converted into caring for patients, helping them engage with their care journey, or boosting their adherence to their care plan. “That’s where workflow-focused technology can give back to efficiency. It’s not ‘robots are now my doctor,’ ” she says.

Documentation is another area where burnout can be circumvented through technology. “EHRs serve a critical function. It’s the system of record, and it is the right place for patient data to live,” says Spira. “However, EHRs were never meant to interface with the patient, especially not outside of the hospital walls. They’re designed for recordkeeping.”

Healthcare gets into trouble, Spira says, when it relies on a technology like the EHR to accomplish everything. “Then you’re putting the burden on the team to figure out how to manipulate a one-purpose system to solve for all these other problems,” she says.

The impact of more engaged patients

The more we leverage the patient, the better the outcomes, says Spira. “The correlation of engagement and patient satisfaction is remarkable,” she says.

This means investing in engagement across the entire healthcare episode, both surgical and nonsurgical. Patients need education about what to expect from each interaction, how to deal with things as they come up, and more.

“It’s not only the improvement in outcomes, but the cost savings that can be incredible,” says Spira. Her organization published a study on total hip replacements, finding that when patients were well educated through an interactive system, readmissions fell by 40%. “That’s a huge savings when every readmission costs about $14,000 in a value-based system,” says Spira. “That’s where we need to start thinking about investing in tools and technology at the top.”

Spira believes patient engagement and interaction come down to establishing a single source of truth for the patient.

“Where they get their information is important. Our episode management begins with engaging the patient before the surgery or initial interaction—not only to prepare them for going home after a procedure, but also to establish a connection so they know where to go if they have questions about their ongoing recovery program,” she says. “We want patients to get information from their own care team, not from Dr. Google.”

Getting patient buy-in before the surgery is key, since postop patients are often groggy, in pain, anxious, and medicated. That’s not the best time to retain information. “We want patients to know they don’t have to remember everything,” says Spira. “We tell them where to go and how to access the information they may need later, and that it’s available 24/7.”

Anyone who has experienced an injury or gone through a recovery journey with a loved one knows how overwhelming and anxious it can feel. “But when you have a trusted source where you can go to get your questions answered, whether that be through a video or by talking to your own care team, you feel calmer knowing you’re well taken care of,” says Spira.

Understanding how patients learn and best retain information is also key at this juncture. “We’ve developed educational tools based upon adult learning best practices, including teach-back quizzes and interactive tools to ensure patients can digest and retain critical information and return to relevant pieces of content for reinforcement,” says Spira.

Force Therapeutics keeps its videos between 45 and 90 seconds: bite-sized segments that are easy to understand and optimized for the amount of time most adults are able to focus. “It can’t be a huge amount of information, and it has to be hyper-relevant and delivered in a phased way that makes sense to the patient,” says Spira.

Content has to be tailored for maximum impact. Educating preop patients on wound care might cause anxiety, for example, but once they get home and need to know how to manage an incision, that piece of content will improve their self-care capability and help to avoid complications like surgical site infection.

“The education has to be thoughtful and well designed,” Spira notes. “Engagement is a buzzword, so we think more about activation—not a one-time interaction, but ongoing activity on a platform that can deliver meaningful patient engagement at every interaction, giving them meaningful information so they learn something different every time they log in.”

The future of patient engagement

Patient engagement is critical across the healthcare ecosystem: from patients to providers, and from health systems to payers. “It is necessary to support providers with purpose-built and configurable tech platforms that integrate into workflows and aren’t rigid or mandated,” says Spira.

Payers also have a role to play here. “They need to incentivize systems correctly—they shouldn’t penalize organizations for deploying innovative technology, but rather support forward-thinking systems and reimburse them accordingly,” says Spira. We’re starting to see this more and more, she notes, with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services releasing codes for telemedicine reimbursement, remote patient monitoring, and remote therapeutic monitoring.

“Patients need to be elevated as members of their own care team,” says Spira. “We need to listen to patients and providers to really understand their barriers and what we can do to help from a technology perspective. Technology doesn’t exist to depersonalize care, but to keep patients engaged and to understand the value of that engagement.”

Matt Phillion is a freelance writer covering healthcare, cybersecurity, and more. He can be reached at matthew.phillion@gmail.com