Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic drove millions of people online, customer expectations have changed for almost every business.
Two years ago, you could use your mobile device to decide which new car you wanted to test drive. Today, you can use your smartphone to complete the entire car-buying experience. Two years ago, shoppers walked inside their favorite retail stores to pick up merchandise. Now, they use their mobile devices to order from their favorite brick-and-mortar store online and arrange for contactless pickup.
These rapidly evolving customer expectations are shaping healthcare, too. Patient consumers have been using mobile devices to access their medical records in patient portals for two decades. And since the pandemic began, they’ve grown exceptionally fond of telehealth, with sustained 38X patient use from the pre-pandemic baseline. But today’s patient consumers want more. They expect and demand a complete digital experience from their favorite healthcare brands.
Health systems—and the tech world—are scrambling to keep pace. According to the Iqvia Institute’s 2021 Digital Health Trends report, more than 90,000 new consumer-facing digital health apps went live in 2020. That’s an average of more than 250 apps per day! The biggest growth is happening in disease management apps, which made up 47% of new app development in 2020 vs. 28% five years ago. Of those new disease management aps, almost half focus on mental health, heart health, and diabetes.
And data show that patient consumers are using their favorite health apps more often than ever before. In 2020, about 4 in 10 individuals that used a patient portal accessed it using a mobile health app. Additional research from the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information shows that more apps are integrating with certified EHRs, a trend driven by the widespread adoption of secure, standards-based application programming interfaces (APIs) that allow patients to access their health information more easily, from whatever device they choose.
All these trends bring great opportunities—and risk—for healthcare organizations. The rush to meet customers’ growing digital experience expectations needs means IT leaders are greenlighting apps at a record pace. But if patients need multiple apps to access your health system, they’ll face a disjointed experience that leaves them frustrated. That’s why many organizations today seek a unified digital front door that combines all of their best apps and features and puts them in the palm of their patient consumers’ hand.
Let’s review how patient expectations have evolved over, the new digital realities patient consumers want today, and how health systems can close the gap.
Patient Portals: The Original Digital Front Door
The digital window into an online-first future of healthcare began at the turn of the 21st century, when California’s Sutter Health became the first health system in the nation to implement MyChart. Suddenly, patients had online access to their test results. They could message their providers, refill prescriptions, schedule appointments, and take charge of their health.
According to an article published in the International Archives of Public Health and Community Medicine, a systematic review of the effect of patient portals concluded that 10 out of 27 studies reported positive effects in terms of medication adherence, self-care practice, improved patient satisfaction, and functional status.
That same article, published in 2018, saw the ongoing upside of emerging digital health technologies. “An enthusiasm is brewing in view of its unprecedented potential in disease treatment, disease prevention, and promotion of health,” the authors wrote. “It has the ability to reach out to every person, at every stratum in need of healthcare and thus may prove to be a silver lining in the healthcare system.”
As patients reported positive experiences with portals, they also developed an affinity toward technology in the way it enables better care. In 2018, researchers in Norway compared patients’ perception of care between an older hospital and a newly opened, high-tech hospital. The results: Patients receiving care in the new hospital reported perceived improvements in care quality based solely on being in a tech-enabled environment.
Beyond portals, newer technologies began having big impacts on health and financial outcomes pre-pandemic. An article published in Health Affairs in March 2019 explored consumer engagement practices at four healthcare delivery organizations. Among the highlights:
- Ochsner Health System in Louisiana piloted a Hypertension Digital Medicine Program using MyChart. After six months, digital medicine patients had more blood pressure measurements recorded into the EHR and more frequent clinical touches compared with in-person patients. Digital medicine patients also achieved a 14% improvement in medication adherence and an 84% patient satisfaction level. Today Ochsner has grown its digital medicine program to include care for type 2 diabetes.
- Sutter Health in California, a MyChart pioneer, continued high patient portal usage, with 79% of their patients seeking ambulatory care using the portal in 2018. They also used MyChart to exchange 16 million secure messages between patients and physicians, and to answer more than 90% of patient-initiated messages within one business day.
- Stanford Health Care in California implemented automated patient check-ins upon clinic arrival, indoor wayfinding tools, the sharing of doctor’s notes from appointments, and pre-appointment surveys to screen patients for signs of depression. Those screenings precipitated more than 6,000 referrals for psychotherapy, case management, nutrition, and other related services.
- UC San Diego Health in California hard-wired inpatient rooms to bring technology directly to the bedside.
The article’s authors made this conclusion: As patients enjoy more user-friendly technology in non-health areas of their lives, they expect the same type of consumer-friendly technology in healthcare.
Present Day: What Patients Want to See Behind Their New Digital Front Door
As consumers embrace digital health in greater numbers and healthcare organizations increase the number of solutions they offer their patient consumers, insurers are taking notice. Some health plans, having seen how wearables like continuous glucose monitors (GCM) help people with type 2 diabetes establish improved blood sugar control, now provide digital tools like GCMs at no additional costs to their members.
And the amount of wearables, apps, and other technologies will only continue to expand over the next few years, with experts predicting the digital health market to grow by nearly 26% through 2025.
As more third-party digital solutions spin up and payers start bridging the gap between technology and patient consumers, health systems are left with a pressing question for 2022 and beyond: What should their digital front door look like now? A few years ago, it was commonplace for health systems to use the patient portal within their EHR as their de facto digital front door. But today, patients want to do more than the portal allows.
Make no mistake, patient portals do a fantastic job of helping patients track their care-related needs before, during and after their visit—from checking symptoms, scheduling appointments and messaging doctors to hosting telehealth visits, filling prescriptions, accessing test results, and paying a bill.
Patient consumers appreciate all of those features. But they want more. And many of the tools they’re seeking are in third-party apps. Among the most popular digital health features and tools patients love and access include:
Wayfinding apps – Hospitals typically have lots of services, many floors, and plenty of hallways. Internal wayfinding apps help patients navigate a large facility with ease. External wayfinding apps help them find parking spots closest to the location of their in-person medical appointment or their loved one’s inpatient room.
Find a Doctor and Find a Location tools – These typically live within a health system’s existing website and help drive loyalty and repeat visits. The most sophisticated ones even have provider ratings built right into the solution.
Apps to promote whole-person care – To meet consumers’ need for meaningful mental health solutions during the pandemic, many health systems are launching apps with branded meditation tools. The best ones allow users to choose the duration, music, and features they want during each session.
Health and wellness education – Quizzes like health risk assessments create fun and engaging ways to reach patients in a time of potential need.
Improved customer service tools – COVID-19 testing and vaccines put intense pressure on health systems, boosted call center volumes exponentially, and made it difficult to deliver timely customer service. To manage call volumes more effectively and improve service, many health systems are exploring chatbots that can accommodate simple queries like provider availability and practice hours. Chatbots give patient consumers answers fast, providing the type of immediate response mobile customers expect in the modern world.
Blog content – While they’re not necessarily transactional in nature, blog posts and videos remain great sources of organic app traffic for health systems. Patient consumers also relied on blogs more often during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when they sought out the latest public health news. Today’s most engaging and popular healthcare blogs include videos, recipes, and actionable health tips—the kind of content consumers crave.
From the advent of the first patient portal to the current realities of a mobile-first digital world, healthcare technology has advanced at breakneck speed. To keep pace, health systems must bring their digital tools together and create a single, unified, and cohesive digital front door that carries their brand forward, improves health outcomes, and makes life easier for their patient consumers.
Continue learning about how to meet patient’s needs. Explore a new type of digital front door that can bring all your best technologies together in one place.