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Solutions that have become more than just “nice-to-have” since the beginning of the 2020 pandemic.
The role and importance of technology for enhancing patient care and engagement were increasing rapidly before the coronavirus pandemic. The public health emergency has only further fueled this substantial growth. There are a number of solutions that have essentially become more than just "nice-to-haves" for practices working to meet the evolving needs of their patients and staff, remain competitive, and ultimately put themselves on paths to success.
Here are eight of such technologies and their importance for practices in today's care delivery system.
Telehealth has emerged as a delivery method largely embraced by patients, physicians, payers, and the federal government because it is an efficient and effective means of providing care that does not require an in-person visit. Now that so many more patients have experienced telehealth and gained first-hand appreciation for its benefits, the demand is expected to remain high well past the end of the pandemic. For practices with an existing telehealth program or those thinking about launching a program, careful attention must be paid to the technology used to support the program. Ensure any platforms and vendors are compliant with HIPAA under existing regulatory waivers and after those waivers expire.
A subset of telehealth, remote patient monitoring (RPM) has also experienced a significant uptick in usage over the past year and there is no indication that this growth will being slowing down. RPM engages patients in their care by allowing patients to use a wide variety of devices to gather, enter, or automatically collect health data and transmit it to their physicians. Common examples of devices include blood pressure monitors, weight scales, blood glucose monitors, and spirometers, but there are also fitness trackers, smartwatches, sleep monitors, thermometers, skin patches, and many more. RPM permits physicians to track patient conditions in between visits and identify when a patient's biological data experiences a change that requires additional attention and possibly care. The rules governing RPM have undergone substantial changes over the past few years, including how services can be delivered, so practices with RPM programs will want to keep up with rule changes to maintain compliance.
To accommodate the increase in remote work and virtual collaboration, practices are turning to communication and collaboration platforms, such as Microsoft Teams and Slack. They typically include a wide range of features, such as chat and video meeting capabilities; personal and team file storage and sharing; real-time file collaboration; and integration with numerous apps and services to further support productivity and teamwork. With the ability to access these platforms across essentially all devices, they serve as a mechanism for practices to deliver services to patients and support efforts for staff to better communicate and work together. While such platforms will not permanently replace in-person meetings, virtual gatherings and collaboration are undoubtedly here to stay.
Cloud computing is essentially the delivery of on-demand computing services provided over the Internet. In other words, these are services that do not require a person to be physically near computer hardware. This covers a wide range of services delivered via technologies that practices are already using or may add in the future. Among them: electronic medical records, telehealth/RPM, communication and collaboration platforms, and patient portals. There are numerous benefits associated with migrating to the cloud and doing so has become simpler and more cost-efficient in recent years. Cloud benefits for patient care include improved collaboration between providers and better engagement of patients in their care via sharing of health data and information.
Practices are turning to a variety of self-service kiosks for a multitude of patient care and engagement-related activities. Patient check-in kiosks allow patients or their caregivers to check in and complete required documentation while informing staff that patients have arrived for appointments. Thermal kiosks check the temperature of staff, patients, and visitors while non-thermal kiosks ask staff, patients, and visitors a series of health screening questions. Some kiosks include video capability that allows staff to visually interact with kiosk users. Others include a credit card slot so patients can make payments. Expect to see the usage of kiosks—by patients, staff, and visitors, including vendors—to become more commonplace in practices and many other areas of healthcare.
Better communications tend to translate to healthier patients and stronger finances. That's why practices are increasingly switching from hardwired phone landlines to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) services. In simple terms, VoIP is a way to place and receive phone calls via the Internet, but it is doing so much more for practices. With VoIP, practices are gaining access to communications solutions that deliver tangible patient care improvements, including improved satisfaction and decreased cancellations. Among VoIP's features, depending upon the solution and services selected: routing of calls to smartphones; more efficient management of patient calls; custom, scheduled messages and greetings; voicemails translated to text; and videoconferencing. VoIP does all of this while improving security and privacy of a practice's communications.
This is a fairly simple technology delivering tremendous value to practices and their patients. SMS—the most common text messaging service component of mobile device, telephone, and Internet systems—has become a preferred method of communication for most of the patient population. Phone calls and voicemails are increasingly ignored due to the proliferation of spam; calling takes up significant staff time and resources. Similarly, emailing has become less dependable due to spam and the number of emails most people receive every day. SMS is an efficient way to communicate with patients and can be leveraged in many ways—even more when two-way text messaging, which permits patients to reply to texts, is leveraged. Practices are using SMS to communicate with patients about the status of appointments, safety protocols, pre-screening requirements, scheduling appointments as part of recall programs, satisfaction surveys, and online reviews, compliance with medication and care protocols, and emergency updates (e.g., COVID-19, weather), just to name a few. With nearly all Americans owning a cell phone with texting capabilities, SMS is an effective communication option for most patients.
While many of the technologies identified above encourage greater patient engagement in and control over their care, there is a growing group of solutions focused on accomplishing this increasingly important component of a patient's care journey. For example, patient portals provide patients with easy access to their health information and can include a host of other features, such as the ability to request referrals and prescription refills, view test results, make payments, and read educational materials. Scheduling software gives patients more control over when patients meet with a provider and potentially how that interaction occurs (i.e., in-person visit or telehealth). Recall solutions inform patients about recommended follow-up appointments and routine services, such as annual wellness visits, colonoscopies, and mammograms. Solutions like text messaging and chat give patients more control over how they communicate with caregivers. These and the many other types of patient engagement solutions are not only helping empower patients to improve their health and wellness, but they are also helping practices adapt to value-based payment models.
Healthcare is undergoing a transformation. Advancements in healthcare technology are helping practices address the changing and often growing care needs of their patients while helping make patients become more active participants in their care. By developing a strategy for adding and integrating new technology, you will put yourself in a position to make smart, educated investments in the solutions that will help ensure your patients receive the personalized care they need, and your practice hits its revenue targets and maintains its long-term viability.
Nelson Gomes is an information technology veteran with 30-plus years of IT experience. He is the senior vice president of business development and general manager of New Jersey for Medicus IT, a healthcare-focused managed services provider.