Data-driven patient engagement strategies in preventive care

How data enables health systems and clinics to better understand and communicate with their unique patient community.

Having recognized World Cancer Day earlier this month (February 4), it’s a good time to bring attention to the fact that screenings for breast, colon, prostate, and lung cancer dropped dramatically—by 85%, 75%, 74% and 56%, respectively—at the peak of the pandemic in April 2020 compared with 2019. Experts worry this decrease will lead to higher mortality, as cancers will be diagnosed and treated at later stages.

While preventive care before the pandemic was already substantially underutilized, we’re looking at a further decline due to fear around COVID-19 and patients’ preference to avoid (or delay) non-emergency medical care.

We’ve seen this shift up close. A recent look at our data across multiple health systems found a sharp drop-off in colonoscopies in April of last year compared to the months prior. While we’ve seen some volume recover recently, others have not. Understanding the consequences of missed screenings like these – a possible delay in catching issues early, and when they’re treatable – means it’s critical to find ways to engage and educate patients about the importance of consistent, proactive, and preventive care. 

Data-driven engagement strategies should align to business and patient outcome goals

When used effectively, data can play a key role in engaging patients, as it enables health systems and clinics to better understand and communicate with their unique patient community. Achieving this purposefully is critical to building a trusting and long-term relationship with the community; too much irrelevant information and a person will tune out, too little and they’ll look elsewhere for the information they seek.

Identifying and understanding the larger goals, both from a revenue and patient outcomes perspective, need to be the starting point for any data-driven patient strategy. This will ensure a tighter focus on how to achieve those goals and avoid one-off activities that distract and detract from the overall purpose, risking an inconsistent experience for patients.

For example, rather than running a one-off campaign to increase awareness of breast cancer and drive mammogram screenings, organizations should identify where priority service lines and their patient community’s health risks and capacity intersect, and develop an engagement strategy accordingly. For some health systems, that might mean heart health is a top priority because of their strong cardiology service line and a high-risk patient community.

Identify patient next best actions

The majority of people know that preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies, is good for the management of their health. But knowledge is very different from action. As humans, we are very good at finding reasons not to take healthcare-related actions: we’re too busy, we don’t want to, we assume the risk pertains to other people, we don’t know where to go. The list goes on. We have shown, however, that a strategy that leverages an organization’s data effectively can change our human tendency towards inaction (or avoidance), as it removes some of the burden from patients.

Like Amazon’s “Buy Now” button, healthcare organizations need to make the process of taking action as frictionless as possible. When communicating to patients, like any consumer, it’s important that the call to action is hyper-relevant and timely, which should tie to the aforementioned ultimate strategy.

For example, we worked with an East Coast-based health system to design and execute a breast cancer campaign that targeted patients at high risk for the disease. We began with a propensity model to identify which patients within the community were at high risk of developing breast cancer based on well-established risk factors and previous health records.

The approach was to educate those patients about the risk of breast cancer, the importance of early and consistent screening, and opportunities to protect themselves through lifestyle and nutrition choices. As part of those communications, the health system would suggest the next best actions a patient could take; for example, a call to schedule a mammogram screening appointment or a check-up with their doctor. On the system side, they had mapped out which possible actions they wanted patients to take, all intended to drive improved health outcomes, to get them in for care and keep them engaged on their care journey.

When we look back at health system data from the past year, we see a dramatic increase in proactive patient engagement. For example, when a health system sent a text message containing general information related to COVID-19, we saw a 50-70% increase in open rates. Email open rates hovered between 40-50% (the industry average is around 20%).

What this means: there’s a large appetite amongst healthcare consumers for valuable healthcare information; they want to hear from their providers. The way to deliver that value, especially as it relates to increasing access and improving revenue from preventive care, is through effective data-driven patient engagement strategies. Only when the healthcare system can demonstrate it understands its patients’ health priorities, concerns and preferences, can we drive improved outcomes.