Way back in the pre-pandemic era of 2018, a study was released by the Partners HealthCare’s accountable care organization that analyzed the rollout of a groundbreaking telemedicine program by the Massachusetts General Physicians Organization. Data on 35,000 patients, seen between 2014 and 2017, found that having a telemedicine option reduced in-person visits by a third in the first 18 months of the program.
That was promising news for an already overburdened healthcare system that was hoping to improve patient experiences and eliminate some of the logistical headaches from the patient journey. Sadly, those early gains were fleeting; the study’s authors concluded that telemedicine’s future was, in their words, murky.
Of course, they couldn’t possibly have known that in just a few short years a novel virus would spark off the worst global pandemic in over a century and that telemedicine would be forced to rapidly advance from a trial or ancillary service to a true lifeline. They also couldn’t have known that IT infrastructures and online communications platforms would be up to that test.
From Experimental to Established
With the benefit of hindsight, everyone’s eyes have now been opened to the capabilities and benefits of telemedicine. But with several effective vaccines now in millions of arms, new cases on the steep decline, and the need for lockdown restrictions fading nearly as quickly, what’s next for telemedicine?
For one thing, in the early days of the pandemic federal and state health regulators smartly adjusted many rules that prevented or limited the provision of diagnostic or therapeutic health services remotely. Some of those changes will likely be made permanent, given the overwhelming success of the telemedicine experiment, but not all. Some patients will have to return to outpatient clinics, doctor’s offices, and hospitals whether they’d like to or not.
That’s not a bad thing. Telemedicine is better suited to some patients and specialties than others. Patients with mobility issues or lack of access to transportation were especially appreciative of the opportunity to cut down on some in-person visits when practical to do so.
“Telemedicine is better suited to some patients and specialties than others.”
In terms of specialties, psychology, psychiatrists, and radiologists also discovered that a great deal of their job can be done almost completely remotely with few negative externalities for patients or healthcare systems. But, in other cases, there still is no perfect substitute for two people in a room together. A cardiologist, for example, still does his or her best work with a stethoscope pressed against a patient’s chest.
The role of healthcare marketers in this still developing phase will be to help both patients and providers understand the benefits of a flexible, hybrid approach that utilizes the strengths of both virtual and in-patient care while minimizing their drawbacks.
Designing a Patient Experience That Is Consistent Across Physical and Digital Touchpoints
The websites and social media channels operated by healthcare brands have become the first source of information patients turn to for information. They serve as a critical early touchpoint that shapes their feelings about the entire healthcare journey, which is why it’s vitally important that the experience is consistent, intuitive, helpful, and continuously optimized to foster user interactions that generate trust, positive brand associations, and high levels of engagement.
“The role of healthcare marketers will be to help both patients and providers understand the benefits of a flexible, hybrid approach that utilizes the strengths of both virtual and in-patient care.”
Bear in mind, however, that the financial and reputational harms associated with data breaches today are as significant as they are, unfortunately, common. So, data security, HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) compliance, and IT best practices can’t be an afterthought. Trust is lost much more quickly than it’s won, and just one embarrassing security failure can be devastating to a growing healthcare brand.
Machine learning and artificial intelligence will also play a growing role in serving tomorrow’s patients. Chatbots and automated response phone systems can do basic intake, route users through the phone tree, and even return relevant answers to basic questions, all of which save office staff a lot of time and effort. But, as anyone who has found themselves pounding the keyboard in frustration at a bot or yelling in vain into their phone at a computer’s voice, pleading for an actual human being to help them can attest, their usefulness still has limits.
With time and technological improvements that will change, they will be capable of taking on more (and more complex) responsibilities.
Another big shift that emerged from the telemedicine boom has been improved adoption of connected health tools like web portals, online registration and scheduling platforms, and apps purposely built to reduce friction in the healthcare journey, empower patients with self help options, and eliminate the need for many phone calls and other inefficient, older means of getting the information they need.
“New tools reduce friction in the healthcare journey, empower patients with self help options, and eliminate the need for many phone calls and other inefficient, older means of getting the information they need.”
Even after the pandemic, waiting rooms will likely not need to be as crowded as they once were. Patients and providers will be better able to granularly and precisely plan visits and provide real time push updates to keep everyone in the loop and on schedule. The days of waiting hours in an uncomfortable chair paging through decades-old copies of “Golf Digest” are numbered.
Brand loyalty is hard to come by across industries today, and healthcare is no exception. Switching costs have never been lower, access to information has never been higher, and the marketplace is incredibly crowded. 64-percent of patients, according to research by Accenture Health, said they would drop their current provider if it wasn’t ensuring safety, providing access to their health data, and making telemedicine visits an option.
The healthcare organizations that thrive in the current marketplace will be those that fully embrace a digital transformation that permanently integrates with their legacy institutions while arming patients with all the information and tools they need to take charge of their own health journey.