Survey: Patient engagement increasing thanks to digital tools, but reservations remain

By Heather Mack
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By necessity, people who are living with a chronic condition are more familiar with the healthcare system than those who are not. As a natural extension of that relationship, these same people are also more in tune with the technology available to improve their engagement with their health, a new poll from health IT company CDW Healthcare shows.

Building on last year’s efforts to examine what’s driving, influencing and presenting barriers to the patient engagement space, CDW surveyed 200 patients and 200 providers (physicians and physician assistants) to assess the impact of digital tools and communication outreach efforts between the two.

All patients surveyed were chronic – defined as having been to the doctor six or more times in the past year. Of this group, 70 percent said they have become more engaged with their care in the past two years, up from 56 percent in 2016. In the past year, 74 percent of patients joined a patient portal (nearly a 30 percent jump from 2016), which resulted in 69 percent speaking with their healthcare provider more often and 69 percent of respondents accessing their healthcare information online.

Patients seem to embrace the idea that more frequent communication with their provider via digital tools could lead to improved health. If given the option, 64 percent of survey respondents said they would submit personal, real-time healthcare information to their provider, although that willingness to share online varies between ages. 

And providers are noticing their patients’ willingness to divulge more information and more frequently to take a more active role in their healthcare. Over 70 percent of providers said improving patient engagement is a top priority in their organization – up from 60 percent in 2016 – and 80 percent are working to implement tools to make access to personal healthcare records easier. And patients are noticing their doctors’ efforts: 83 percent reported receiving encouragement from their doctor to access their own information and 81 percent said they were offered a patient portal to sign up for. There has also been an increase in communication in the form of email and the creation of mobile apps.

Easier online access to information and portals is driving the improvement, the poll found, as is patients’ familiarity with technology – 98 percent say they are comfortable communicating with providers via online patient portals, but it depends on the format: 83 percent are comfortable communicating with mobile apps, 77 percent like texting, 75 percent are comfortable with online chat, and 69 percent are comfortable with video chat. However, it drops off significantly when social media comes into play, with just 34 percent of patients saying they feel comfortable communicating with their provider through those mediums.

Oddly enough, these same patients who are embracing online communication with their providers still aren’t completely sold on the promise of telemedicine. As indicated with their lesser comfort with video chat, only 30 percent of respondents said telemedicine would be “somewhat” or “very valuable” as a means of being more engaged in their healthcare. Polls about telemedicine tends to have varying results based on who’s answering, as different surveys have shown a majority of patients wanting telemedicine, yet not knowing where to find it, and others showing patients so gung ho as to consider leaving their current doctor for one who offers telemedicine.  But the CDW poll also revealed low levels of trust on the provider side: just 9 percent of those surveyed said they are very comfortable with the idea of telemedicine, citing concerns over their own ability to have a thorough a video consultation (70 percent), privacy (43 percent), or their patients lack of familiarity with the technology (35 percent).

To continue on the upward trend of patient engagement, providers say they need to start by identifying patient needs before they offer the digital tools to accommodate them. Additionally, they must provide adequate support to run and oversee new technology systems as well as educate patients on how, when, and why to use tools like online patient portals.