Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

August 14, 2015

By: John Sung Kim Successful practices are learning how to leverage tech tools to meet patient expectations to stay independent.

Since the emergence of the iPhone, patients are becoming, well, less patient. Just eight years ago, patients were content waiting 15 minutes or longer in the practice lobby and not being able to e-mail their providers. Of course, that’s changing quickly, but the question remains for many independent practices:

"What are the specific trends in patient behavior and how do we leverage them given our limited resources and time?"

A recent patient survey conducted by Technology Advice, a Brentwood, Tenn.-based research firm, shows that patients are increasingly choosing doctors (and switching doctors) based on their digital health offerings.

While the ubiquity of smartphones has created the sea change in patient expectations, organizations like Kaiser Permanente, One Medical, and Sutter Health are greatly accelerating this reality in the marketplace as they invest tens of millions (hundreds of millions in the case of Kaiser) into offering patients the convenience of digital health. And in doing so, these organizations can charge premiums in their local markets and excel in reputation marketing as patients eagerly provide four- and five-star reviews online.

Some of the key findings of the Technology Advice study surprised even some of the researchers. For example, the number one feature patients desired was after-appointment communication (what medical software developers call "re-care automation") to the tune of 68.6 percent of respondents saying this was "important" in their selection of a doctor.

A strong 60.8 percent of respondents said that online appointments were important in their physician choice, with 17.7 percent of patients wanting online bill payment options as well.

Another trend reported by the global consulting firm, Accenture indicated that 40 percent of U.S. patients would be willing to switch physicians if they offered digital access.

What About Seniors?
Many healthcare professionals, especially those in primary care and internal medicine, have pointed out that practices with a heavy contingent of Medicare beneficiaries are not subject to these trends. Some have said seniors have been reluctant to adopt the Internet, smartphones, and tablets, but even this trend is changing rapidly.

In contrast, according to a study conducted by the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Group, 59 percent of all seniors over the age of 65 now actively go online, while 87 percent of college educated senior citizens go online. In fact, over the last year, the total number of seniors online went up an astounding 6 percent.

It can no longer be said that "seniors don’t get the Internet." In a separate poll conducted by Pew, 82 percent of seniors who owned smartphones described it as "freedom" while36 percent of young adults under the age of 30 described their smartphones as "a leash." Clearly, seniors get it - and appreciate technology.

What Leading Independent Practices Are Doing

Here are two strategies that independent practices, just like yours, are employing to meet this patient-as-consumer trend head on:

1. Mobile-Friendly Patient Portals Independent and small practices are staying competitive by adopting mobile-friendly patient portals, along with marketing automation and patient engagement software that integrates with their EHR and practice management systems.

A mobile-friendly patient portal is essential to a successful rollout and patient adoption, as the offstage 2 rules of meaningful use have shown that desktop-based patient portals struggle to gain patient enrollment. Interestingly, and not coincidentally, Google recently stated that in many of their major markets, mobile-based use of its search engine now outpaces desktop-based use.

2. Practice Marketing and Patient Engagement Software
The marketing automation companies serving the healthcare industry have known this secret for nearly a decade: Engaging patients starts with a digital appointment reminder.

An integrated patient engagement system reads from the calendar of an EHR or practice management system to automatically send patients an e-mail or text message reminder to show up for their appointment. This is the start of what marketers call "The Funnel."

Getting the appointment reminder is the top of this funnel. This starts the cascading experience of the patient journey, as patients can then be encouraged to register for the patient portal, conduct an after-appointment survey with the ability to share positive reviews if they should so desire (and a surprising amount of happy patients are willing to do this for their providers), and then receive automated re-care messages from the practice.

From a historical industry perspective, the adage that, "healthcare is seven years behind other industries as far as IT," has traditionally held true. E-mail was widely used in corporate and small-business settings years before secure messaging was adopted in healthcare (some would argue it’s still in the early adoption phase), the federal government needed to issue incentives to many providers to adopt EHRs, and practice owners are still struggling to catch up with social media, reputation, and search engine marketing.

From a venture capitalist’s or MBA’s point of view, however, this represents tremendous opportunity for small and independent practice owners to enjoy "First Mover Advantage" (where the early adopters or innovators outpace their competitors by adopting proven technologies faster).

These solutions are now affordable for any sized medical practice. So the trend towards patient patients (pun intended) turning into demanding consumers will not necessarily reward the largest medical organizations, but the most technically savvy.

John Sung Kimis a technology evangelist at Kareo. He is the founder and founding CEO of Five9 widely recognized as the leading company in the contact center industry. He's acted as a consultant to numerous startups including LGC Wireless, Qualys, and RingCentral. He can be contacted at john.kim@doctorbase.com.