An effective communication strategy can improve practice efficiencies

With an effective communication strategy administrative burden won't be an obstacle to quality care.

When physicians were asked to name their top challenges in a recent survey, they overwhelmingly chose “administrative burdens,” which include staffing issues, prior authorizations and ever-present issues with electronic health records systems (EHRs).

The ongoing effects of the coronavirus pandemic resonate well beyond hospital settings, impacting medical practices in myriad ways. Practices still are playing catch-up with patients who avoided visits during the initial pandemic shutdowns and who remain leery of in-person visits as variants surge.

Practice efficiency is a good news/bad news scenario, with the need for support staff down 6% in Q4 2021 when compared to the pre-pandemic Q4 2019, according to healthcare consultancy Kaufman Hall. However, an increase in expenses offsets the staff productivity gains. With unemployment nearly recovered from the pandemic crash, practices find themselves struggling to recruit and retain competent staff amid more lucrative offers and better working conditions.

Savvy practices are exploring how to become more efficient by using a communications platform that allows personalized, HIPAA-compliant, one-to-one and one-to-many communications that can help engage patients in their care while creating practice efficiencies.

Respect the Patient at Each Interaction

Small changes to practice workflows can have an oversized impact on overall organizational efficiency, a study published in 2020 shows. The study’s goal was to support the Quadruple Aim of reducing costs while improving population health, patient satisfaction and team well-being in a medical practice setting. By reducing administrative burdens, an intervention group could offer 48% more patient appointment slots than the control group.

Any practice contemplating changes must realize that patient interactions must remain the core focus. At many practices, it’s already impossible to speak with a live person after negotiating a phone tree or sending an email through the patient portal. Frustrated patients are less likely to be satisfied by their care experience and to recommend the provider to friends. Which is why it is imperative that any communications platform must put patients front-and-center, with easy and secure interactions that don’t require the patient to download yet another mobile app.

Instead of the ubiquitous appointment reminder phone call – which takes staff time away from more value-added duties and patients away from whatever they were doing when the phone rang – how about a personalized text message from the provider’s main phone line confirming the appointment? The patient can quickly confirm the appointment or call up the provider’s schedule to pick another time.

Accomplish More Through Text

Younger patients probably aren’t answering those reminder calls anyway, preferring a quick text. A communications platform with HIPAA-compliant texting can create efficiencies within the practice in numerous ways besides appointment reminders, allowing staff to have one-to-many asynchronous conversations rather than one-on-one phone interactions.

Fully 85% of American adults own smartphones that can support texts, document transmittal and video calls, up from 81% in 2019. It’s not surprising to discover that smartphone ownership is lower among older adults, but more than seven in 10 adults ages 65-74 have a smartphone.

To leverage texts in a medical setting, patients must first opt in to receive messages to comply with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA). Practices want a communications platform that’s HIPAA-compliant and allows communications with a particular patient to become part of that patient’s medical record.

How often does your practice get calls about directions, parking or practice policies? Templated responses answered by text rather than phone will free up staff time and increase the percentage of on-time patient arrivals. One physician using a HIPAA-compliant, text-based communications platform reports that his practice has never had a patient miss an appointment or arrive late.

Onboarding and front-end practices also can be accomplished by text. Sending pre-appointment forms to be completed ahead of time can make the day-of visit go more smoothly. Practices want a platform that can track communications so only those who haven’t filled out pre-appointment paperwork, for example, receive reminders.

Provide Better, More Timely Patient Care

In a truly patient-centered practice, patients shouldn’t need to take additional steps to communicate with the practice, such as download an app or remember log-in credentials for the patient portal. Mobile devices are convenient, handy and the preferred communications method for an increasingly tech-savvy population.

A communications platform that includes secure photo and video capabilities reduces significant barriers that exist between patient needs and provider time.

Telehealth visits comprised a microscopic portion of total medical visits prior to the pandemic. Between February and April 2020, however, the use of telehealth skyrocketed by a factor of 78. While the numbers have declined since then, the use of telehealth remains 38 times higher than the pre-COVID-19 baseline. Factors cited in the sustained increase include regulatory changes that make using telehealth easier and increased patient and physician comfort with telehealth and willingness to use it.

Besides synchronous video, asynchronous communication through text or photographs can increase patient touchpoints and satisfaction while making the practice more efficient. A dermatologist can look at a patient-submitted photo and determine whether a skin condition is harmless or warrants an in-person visit. A surgeon can look at a photo of an incision and determine whether it is healing properly.

Asynchronous communications can also be used to help patients manage their chronic conditions. When the communications platform is integrated with the practice management system, personalized and templated messages can be sent to certain patient cohorts at pre-determined times. A cardiologist, for example, can request blood pressure readings for at-risk patients, or a general practitioner can request blood glucose numbers for diabetes patients. If the numbers look good, the provider can send a positive note that encourages future compliance, while negative numbers may require an appointment.

Conclusion

Medical practices have made efficiency strides during the pandemic, but those strides have been blunted by higher costs. Secure, HIPAA-complaint asynchronous and synchronous communications can help the same number of staff to manage more patients, preserve provider time for the sickest patients and create workflow efficiencies.

Brendan Dagg is vice president of product at Rhinogram where he focuses on relationship management and workflow efficiencies, using modern communication tools to enhance patient experience.