Communicating with patients? Follow their preferences, not yours

From the mHealthNews archive
By Pam Mortenson

"Tweet them" or "there's an app for that" are two phrases we often hear from consumers these days. When you think about the ways you can communicate with patients, it quickly becomes apparent that you're only limited by your imagination. Apps, SMS texts, video, portals, social media and, yes, even the old-fashioned phone call (with your choice of landline or mobile) offer endless opportunities to engage with patients.

Therein lies the problem.

The number of communication channels available can be dizzying. Each has its own set of best practices, and every patient has a preferred medium. A young professional woman may prefer appointment reminders via text message so that she can respond when it is convenient for her, while a retired man may prefer a voice call.

The challenge for providers and organizations in this era of retail-style healthcare is developing a patient engagement strategy that is not a one-size-fits-all but, rather, one that personalizes both the medium and the message.

Think like retail

A few years ago, Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville, Tenn., set out to prove that communication through patients' preferred channels could increase response rates.

Before aligning communication options with patients' preferences, VUMC experienced a confirmation rate of about 30 percent through voice call appointment reminders. Since giving patients the option to receive appointment reminders via text message, confirmation rates climbed to 55 percent among those who opted for a text. Voice call confirmation rates also increased - to 37 percent, a rate 23 percent higher than the historical average for those patients.

Because text messages have a higher open rate than other forms of communication, more hospitals are using them beyond appointment reminders, for example, to gather feedback on patient care after their discharge and to find participants for a clinical trial.

Consumer experience specialists in healthcare are starting to think more like their peers in retail. But rather than hop on the latest trend, it's vital that organizations coordinate all aspects of patient communication effectively and to the patient's benefit. Without a unified patient engagement strategy, a company's investment in the technology will not pay off and may even backfire. Patients can suffer from "engagement fatigue," a result of being over-contacted; the patient can lose confidence and tune out the provider due to redundant, irrelevant information or, worse, an inability to reach the correct healthcare person when needed. Disgruntled consumers have been known to voice a customer service request or complaint via Twitter because of the lack of support available through the company's 800 number.

As the healthcare model continues to change, provider organizations need to recognize that patients are consumers, and they need to begin treating them as buyers of services. Provider organizations that aggressively leverage personalized communication methods will be the winners in what will soon be a competitive healthcare environment.   

Unified patient engagement strategies are crafted to help organizations thrive in a complex business environment, reduce costs, maximize revenue and improve the quality of care delivered. When done right, this approach enables communication beyond a clinical setting and across a continuum of care, connecting patients and providers in meaningful and relevant ways.

Pam Mortenson is executive vice president of strategic integration and market development for the West Corporation. She brings nearly three decades of experience in solving patient access and communication challenges to West Healthcare clients, ensuring a unified patient engagement strategy is driving integration.