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E-Patient Update: Enough Apps Already

Posted on September 1, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

New data suggests that while app use is becoming a core activity for mobile, the number of apps people use is dropping. In fact, over the longer term, analysts say, most businesses will need to slim down the number of apps they deploy and do more to retain app users.

Speaking as someone who relies on apps to manage her health, I certainly hope that this happens among healthcare providers.

Maybe you think of my contact with your organization as a series of distinct interactions, and the data something that can be reintegrated later. All I can say is ”Please, no.” I want every digital contact I have with your organization to be part of a large, easy-to-navigate whole.

In fact,  I’ll go further and say that if your organizations offer a single, robust app that can offer me broad access to your administration, clinical departments and patient data I’ll choose you over your competitors any day.

Health app overload

As you may know, the number of health-related apps available on the Google Play and iTunes stores has grown at a dizzying pace over the last few years, hitting approximately 165,000 across both platforms as of two years ago. Most of these are were created by independent developers, and only a small percentage of those apps are downloaded and used regularly, but it’s still a stat worth considering.

Meanwhile, new data suggests that the field is going to narrow further among apps of all types. According to research from Business Insider, somewhere between 10% and 12% of app users remain engaged with those apps within seven days of installing them. However, that percentage drops to around 4% within just 30 days.

These trends may force a change in how healthcare organizations think about, develop and deploy apps for their end users. As users think of apps as utilities, they will have little patience for using, say, one for your cardiology department and another for sleep management, not to be confused with a third portal app for downloading medical information and paying bills.

If you’re part of an institution with multiple apps deployed, this may sound discouraging. But maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all.  Consumers may have less patience for a fragmented app experience, but if you produce a “power tool” app, they’re likely to use it. And if you play your cards right, that may mean higher levels of patient engagement.

My ideal health app

Having slammed the status quo, here’s what I’d like to see happen with the apps developed by healthcare organizations. I believe they should work as follows:

  • Providers should offer just one app for access to the entire organization, including all clinical departments
  • It should have the ability to collect and upload patient-generated data to the EMR
  • It should provide all features currently available through existing portals, including access to health data, secure email connections to providers, appointment-setting and bill payment
  • It makes all standard paperwork available, including informed consent documentation, pre-surgical instructions, financial agreements and applications for financial aid and Medicaid
  • It generates questions to ask a provider during a consult, before an imaging procedure, before, during and after hospitalization

I could go further, but I’m sure you get the idea: I’d like my providers’ apps to improve my health and foster my relationship with them.  To make that happen, I need a single, unified entity, not a bunch of separate modules that take up space on my phone and distract me from my overall goals.

Of course, one could reasonably observe that this turns a bunch of small lightweight programs into a single thick client. I’m sure that has implications for app coding and development, such as having to ensure that the larger apps still run reasonably quickly on mobile devices. Still, smartphones are ridiculously powerful these days, so I think it can still happen.

Like it or not, consumers are moving past the “there’s an app for everything ” stage and towards having a few powerful apps support them. If you’re still developing apps for every aspect of your business, stop.

Hospitals Aren’t Getting Much ROI From RCM Technology

Posted on July 24, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

If your IT investments aren’t paying off, your revenue cycle management process is clunky and consumers are defaulting on their bills, you’re in a pretty rocky situation financially. Unfortunately, that’s just the position hospitals find themselves in lately, according to a new study.

The study, which was conducted by the Healthcare Financial Management Association and Navigant, surveyed 125 hospital health system chief financial officers and revenue cycle executives.

When they looked at the data, researchers saw that hospitals are being hit with a double whammy. On the one hand, the RCM systems hospitals have in place don’t seem to be cutting it, and on the other, the hospitals are struggling to collect from patients.

Nearly three out of four respondents said that their RCM technology budgets were increasing, with 32% reporting that they were increasing spending by 5% or more. Seventy-seven percent of hospitals with less than 100 beds and 78% of hospitals with 100 to 500 beds plan to increase such spending, the survey found.

The hospital leaders expect that technology investments will improve their RCM capabilities, with 79% considering business intelligence analytics, EHR-enabled workflow or reporting, revenue integrity, coding and physician/clinician documentation options.

Unfortunately, the software infrastructure underneath these apps isn’t performing as well as they’d like. Fifty-one percent of respondents said that their organizations had trouble keeping up with EHR upgrades, or weren’t getting the most out of functional, workflow and reporting improvements. Given these obstacles, which limit hospitals’ overall tech capabilities, these execs have little chance of seeing much ROI from RCM investments.

Not only that, CFOs and RCM leaders weren’t sure how much impact existing technology was having on their organizations. In fact, 41% said they didn’t have methods in place to track how effective their technology enhancements have been.

To address RCM issues, hospital leaders are looking beyond technology. Some said they were tightening up their revenue integrity process, which is designed to ensure that coding and charge capture processes work well and pricing for services is reasonable. Such programs are designed to support reliable financial reporting and efficient operations.

Forty-four percent of respondents said their organizations had established revenue integrity programs, and 22% said revenue integrity was a top RCM focus area for the coming year. Meanwhile, execs whose organizations already had revenue integrity programs in place said that the programs offered significant benefits, including increased net collections (68%), greater charge capture (61%) and reduced compliance risks (61%).

Still, even if a hospital has its RCM house in order, that’s far from the only revenue drain it’s likely to face. More than 90% of respondents think the steady increase in consumer responsibility for care will have an impact on their organizations, particularly rural hospital executives, the study found.

In effort to turn the tide, hospital financial execs are making it easier for consumers to pay their bills, with 93% of respondents offering an online payment portal and 63% rolling out cost-of-care estimation tools. But few hospitals are conducting sophisticated collections initiatives. Only 14% of respondents said they were using advanced modeling tools for predicting propensity to pay, researchers said.

Providers Work To Increase Patient Payments By Improving RCM Operations

Posted on June 29, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

A growing body of research on healthcare payment trends is underscoring a painful fact: that consumers are footing a steadily growing share of their medical bills, and sometimes failing to pay. In response, providers are upgrading their revenue cycle management systems and tightening up their collections processes.

A new analysis by payment services vendor InstaMed has concluded that consumer spending on healthcare services should grow to $608 billion by 2019. This is a fairly substantial number even given the high volume of U.S. healthcare spending, which hit $3.4 trillion in 2016.

The growth in patient spending has been fueled by the emergence of high-deductible health plans, which are saddling consumers with increasingly large financial obligations. According to CMS figures cited in the report, the average deductible for covered workers with single coverage has doubled over the past several years, from $735 in 2010 to $1.487 in 2016.

But despite the increasing importance of consumers as healthcare payers, providers don’t seem to be doing enough to inform them about costs. More than 90% of consumers would like to know what the payment responsibility is prior to a provider visit, but they often don’t find out what they owe until they get a bill. What makes things worse is that very few consumers (7%) even know what a deductible, co-insurance and out-of-pocket maximum are, so they’re ill-prepared to understand bills when they receive them, studies have found.

Providers are waiting longer to collect what they are owed by patients, with three-quarters waiting a month or longer to collect outstanding balances from patients. And problems with collecting patient accounts are getting worse over time.  In fact, a new study from TransUnion Healthcare found that about 68% of patients with bills of $500 or less didn’t pay off the full balance during 2016, up from 49% in 2014.

Meanwhile, patient financial responsibility for care has risen from 10% to 30% of costs over the last few years, with more increases likely. This has led to expanding levels of consumer bad debt for medical expenses.

In attempt to cope with these issues, providers are buying new revenue cycle management systems. A survey released last year by Black Book Research, which included 5,000 management and user-level RCM clients, found that many healthcare organizations are rethinking RCM technology and demanding better performance.

Forty-eight percent of responding CFOs told Black Book that they weren’t sure they had the budget they needed to upgrade to an end-to-end RCM system this year.  Nonetheless, 93% of CFOs said they planned to eliminate RCM vendors, financial and coding technology firms, that are not producing a return on investment, up from 79% with similar plans in Q4 2015.

In addition to investing in newer RCM technology, providers are making it easier for patients to pay via whatever medium they choose. Not only are providers issuing bill reminders via text, and accepting payments online and by phone, they’re also adding new channels like PayPal payments, bank transfers and mobile payments.

Patients Message Providers More When Providers Reach Out

Posted on April 26, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

A new study has concluded that patients use secure electronic messaging more when their primary care providers initiate and respond to secure messages.

To conduct the study, the research team worked a large database stocked with information on health care transactions and secure messaging records on 81,645 US Army soldiers. The data also included information from almost 3,000 clinicians with access to a patient portal system. The dataset encompassed the 4-year period between January 2011 and November 2014.

The data, which appears in a paper published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, suggests that current provider-patient exchanges via secure messaging aren’t that common. For example, during the study period just 7 percent of patients initiated a secure message during a given month. Meanwhile, Providers initiated an average of 0.007 messages per patient each month, while responding to 0.09 messages per patient during a month.

That being said, when physicians got more engaged with the messaging process, patients responded dramatically.

Patients who knew their providers were responsive initiated a whopping 334 percent more secure messages than their baseline. Even among patients whose providers responded infrequently to their messages, the level at which they initiated messages to their clinicians was 254 percent higher than with PCPs who weren’t responding. (Oddly, when PCP response rates were at the “medium” level, patients increased messaging by 167 percent.)

In fact, when clinicians communicated more, there seemed to be spillover effects. Specifically, the researchers found that patients messaged PCPs more if that provider was very responsive to other patients, suggesting that there’s a network effect in play here.

Meanwhile, when PCPs were the ones prone to initiating messages, patients were 60 percent more likely to send a secure message. In other words, patients were more energized by PCP responses than clinician-initiated messages.

Of course, for secure messaging to have any real impact on care quality and outcomes, a critical mass of patients need to use messaging tools. Historically, though, providers have struggled to get patients to use their portal, with usage levels hovering between 10 percent and 32 percent.

Usage rates for portals have stayed stubbornly low even when doctors work hard to get their patients interested. Even patients who have signed up to use the portal often don’t follow through, research suggests. And of course, patients who don’t touch the portal aren’t exchanging care-enhancing messages with their provider.

If we’re going to get patients to participate in messaging with their doctor, we’re going to have to admit that the features offered by basic portals simply aren’t that valuable. While most offer patients access to some details of their medical records and test results, and sometimes allow them to schedule appointments, many don’t provide much more.

Meanwhile, a surprising number of providers haven’t even enabled a secure messaging function on their portal, which confines it to being a sterile data receptacle. I’d argue that without offering this feature, portals do almost nothing to engage their typical patient.

Of course, physicians fear being overwhelmed by patient messages, and reasonably fear that they won’t have time to respond adequately. Even though many organizations including the research of Dr. CT Lin has shown this just isn’t the case. That being said, if they want to increase patient engagement – and improve their overall health – secure messaging is one of the simplest tools for making that happen. So even if it means redesigning their workflow or tasking advanced practice nurse with responding to routine queries, it’s worth doing.

E-Patient Update: Reducing Your Patients’ Security Anxiety

Posted on March 31, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Even if you’re not a computer-savvy person, these days you can hardly miss the fact that healthcare data is a desirable target for cyber-criminals. After all, over the past few years, healthcare data breaches have been in the news almost every day, with some affecting millions of consumers.

As a result, many patients have become at least a bit afraid of interacting with health data online. Some are afraid that data stored on their doctor or hospital’s server will be compromised, some are afraid to manage their data on their own, and others don’t even know what they’re worried about – but they’re scared to get involved with health data online.

As an e-patient who’s lived online in one form or another since the 80s (anyone remember GEnie or Compuserve?) I’ve probably grown a bit too blasé about security risks. While I guard my online banking password as carefully as anyone else, I don’t tend to worry too much about abstract threats posed by someone who might someday, somehow find my healthcare data among millions of other files.

But I realize that most patients – and providers – take these issues very seriously, and with good reason. Even if HIPAA weren’t the law of the land, providers couldn’t afford to have patients feel like their privacy wasn’t being respected. After all, patients can’t get the highest-quality treatment available if they aren’t comfortable being candid about their health behaviors.

What’s more, no provider wants to have their non-clinical data hacked either. Protecting Social Security numbers, credit card details and other financial data is a critical responsibility, and failing at it could cost patients more than their privacy.

Still, if we manage to intimidate the people we’re trying to help, that can’t be good either. Surely we can protect health data without alienating too many patients.

Striking a balance

I believe it’s important to strike a balance between being serious about security and making it difficult or frightening for patients to engage with their data. While I’m not a security expert, here’s some thoughts on how to strike that balance, from the standpoint of a computer-friendly patient.

  • Don’t overdo things: Following strong security practices is a good idea, but if they’re upsetting or cumbersome they may defeat your larger purposes. I’m reminded of the policy of one of my parents’ providers, who would only provide a new password for their Epic portal if my folks came to the office in person. Wouldn’t a snail mail letter serve, at least if they used registered mail?
  • Use common-sense procedures: By all means, see to it that your patients access their data securely, but work that into your standard registration process and workflow. By the time a patient leaves your office they should have access to everything they need for portal access.
  • Guide patients through changes: In some cases, providers will want to change their security approach, which may mean that patients have to choose a new ID and password or otherwise change their routine. If that’s necessary, send them an email or text message letting them know that these changes are expected. Otherwise they might be worried that the changes represent a threat.
  • Remember patient fears: While practice administrators and IT staff may understand security basics, and why such protections are necessary, patients may not. Bear in mind that if you take a grim tone when discussing security issues, they may be afraid to visit your portal. Keep security explanations professional but pleasant.

Remember your goals

Speaking as a consumer of patient health data, I have to say that many of the health data sites I’ve accessed are a bit tricky to use. (OK, to be honest, many seem to be designed by a committee of 40-something engineers that never saw a gimmicky interface they didn’t like.)

And that isn’t all. Unfortunately, even a highly usable patient data portal or app can become far more difficult to use if necessary security protections are added to the mix. And of course, sometimes that may be how things have to be.

I guess I’m just encouraging providers who read this to remember their long-term goals. Don’t forget that even security measures should be evaluated as part of a patient’s experience, and at least see that they do as little as possible to undercut that experience.

After all, if a girl-geek and e-patient like myself finds the security management aspect of accessing my data to be a bummer, I can only imagine other consumers will just walk away from the keyboard. With any luck, we can find ways to be security-conscious without imposing major barriers to patient engagement.

Study Offers Snapshot Of Provider App Preferences

Posted on March 20, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

A recent study backed by HIT industry researchers and an ONC-backed health tech project offers an interesting window into how healthcare organizations see freestanding health apps. The research, by KLAS and the SMART Health IT Project, suggests that providers are developing an increasingly clear of what apps they’d like to see and how they’d use them.

Readers of this blog won’t be surprised to hear that it’s still early in the game for healthcare app use. In fact, the study notes, about half of healthcare organizations don’t formally use apps at the point of care. Also, most existing apps offer basic EMR data access, rather than advanced use cases.

The apps offering EMR data access are typically provided by vendors, and only allow users to view such data (as opposed to documenting care), according to the study report. But providers want to roll out apps which allow inputting of clinical data, as this function would streamline clinicians’ ability to make an initial patient assessment, the report notes.

But there are other important app categories which have gained an audience, including diagnostic apps used to support patient assessment, medical reference apps and patient engagement apps.  Other popular app types include clinical decision support tools, documentation tools and secure messaging apps, according to researchers.

It’s worth noting, though, that there seems to be a gap between what providers are willing to use and what they are willing to buy or develop on their own. For example, the report notes that nearly all respondents would be willing to buy or build a patient engagement app, as well as clinical decision support tools and documentation apps. The patient engagement apps researchers had in would manage chronic conditions like diabetes or heart disease, both very important population health challenges.

Hospital leaders, meanwhile, expressed interest in using sophisticated patient portal apps which go beyond simply allowing patients to view their data. “What I would like a patient app to do for us is to keep patients informed all throughout their two- to four-hours ED stay,” one CMO told researchers. “For instance, the app could inform them that their CBC has come back okay and that their physician is waiting on the read. That way patients would stay updated.”

When it came to selecting apps, respondents placed a top priority on usability, followed by the app’s cost, clinical impact, capacity for integration, functionality, app credibility, peer recommendations and security. (This is interesting, given many providers seem to give usability short shrift when evaluating other health IT platforms, most notably EMRs.)

To determine whether an app will work, respondents placed the most faith in conducting a pilot or other trial. Other popular approaches included vendor demos and peer recommendations. Few favored vendor websites or videos as a means of learning about apps, and even fewer placed working with app endorsement organizations or discovering them at conferences.

But providers still have a few persistent worries about third-party apps, including privacy and security, app credibility, the level of ongoing maintenance needed, the extent of integration and data aggregation required to support apps and issues regarding data ownership. Given that worrisome privacy and security concerns are probably justified, it seems likely that they’ll be a significant drag on app adoption going forward.

E-Patient Update: Patients Need Better Care Management Workflows

Posted on March 10, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

Now and then, I get a little discouraged by the state of my health data. Like providers, I’m frustrated as heck by the number of independent data sources I must access to get a full picture of my medications, care and health status. These include:

* The medication tracker on my retail pharmacy’s site
* My primary care group’s portal
* My hospital’s Epic MyChart portal
* A medication management app to track my compliance with my regimen
* A health tracker app in which I track my blood pressure
* My Google calendar, to keep up with my health appointments
* Email clients to exchange messages with some providers

That’s not all – I’m sure I could think of other tools, interfaces and apps – but it offers a good idea of what I face. And I’m pretty sure I’m not unusual in this regard, so we’re talking about a big issue here.

By the way, bear in mind I’m not just talking about hyperportalotus – a fun term for the state of having too many portals to manage – but rather, a larger problem of data coordination. Even if all of my providers came together and worked through a shared single portal, I’d still have to juggle many tools for tracking and documenting my care.

The bottom line is that given the obstacles I face, my self-care process is very inefficient. And while we spend a lot of time talking about clinician workflow (which, of course, is quite important) we seldom talk about patient/consumer health workflow. But it’s time that we did.

Building a patient workflow

A good initial step in addressing this problem might be to create a patient self-care workflow builder and make it accessible website. Using such a tool, I could list all of the steps I need to take to manage my conditions, and the tool would help me develop a process for doing so effectively.

For example, I could “tell” the software that I need to check the status of my prescriptions once a week, visit certain doctors once a month, check in about future clinical visits on specific days and enter my data in my medication management app twice a day. As I did this, I would enter links to related sites, which would display in turn as needed.

This tool could also display critical web data, such as the site compiling the blood sugar readings from my husband’s connected blood glucose monitor, giving patients like me the ability to review trends at a glance.

I haven’t invented the wheel here, of course. We’re just talking about an alternate approach to a patient portal. Still, even this relatively crude approach – displaying various web-based sources under one “roof” along with an integrated process – could be quite helpful.

Eventually, health IT wizards could build much more sophisticated tools, complete with APIs to major data sources, which would integrate pretty much everything patients need first-hand. This next-gen data wrangler would be able to create charts and graphs and even issue recommendations if the engine behind it was sophisticated enough.

Just get started

All that being said, I may be overstating how easy it would be to make such a solution work. In particular, I’m aware that integrating a tool with such disparate data sources is far, far easier said than done. But why not get started?

After all, it’s hard to overestimate how much such an approach would help patients, at least those who are comfortable working with digital health solutions. Having a coordinated, integrated tool in place to help me manage my care needs would certainly save me a great deal of time, and probably improve my health as well.

I urge providers to consider this approach, which seems like a crying need to me. The truth is, most of the development money is going towards enabling the professionals to coordinate and manage care. And while that’s not a bad thing, don’t forget us!

E-Patient Update:  You Need Our Help

Posted on January 20, 2017 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

I just read the results of a survey by Black Book Research suggesting that many typical consumers don’t trust, like or understand health IT.

The survey, which reached out to 12,090 adult consumers in September 2016, found that 57% of those interacting with health IT at hospitals or medical practices were skeptical of its benefit. Worse, 87% said they weren’t willing to share all of their information.

Up to 70% of consumers reported that they distrusted patient portals, medical apps and EMRs. Meanwhile, while many respondents said they were interested in using health trackers, 94% said that their physicians weren’t willing or able to synch wearables data with their EMR.

On the surface, these stats are discouraging. At a minimum, they suggest that getting patients and doctors on the same page about health IT continues to be an uphill battle. But there’s a powerful tactic providers can use which – to my knowledge – hasn’t been tried with consumers.

Introducing the consumer health IT champion

As you probably know, many providers have recruited physician or nurse “champions” to help their peers understand and adjust to EMRs. I’m sure this tactic hasn’t worked perfectly for everyone who’s tried it, but it seems to have an impact. And why not? Most people are far more comfortable learning something new from someone who understands their work and shares their concerns.

The thing is, few if any providers are taking the same approach in rolling out consumer health IT. But they certainly could. I’d bet that there’s at least a few patients in every population who like, use and understand consumer health technologies, as well as having at least a sense of why providers are adopting back-end technology like EMRs. And we know how to get Great-Aunt Mildred to consider wearing a FitBit or entering data into a portal.

So why not make us your health IT champions? After all, if you asked me to, say, hold a patient workshop explaining how I use these tools in my life, and why they matter, I’d jump at the chance. E-patients like myself are by our nature evangelists, and we’re happy to share our excitement if you give us a chance. Maybe you’d need to offer some HIT power users a stipend or a gift card, but I doubt it would take much to get one of us to share our interests.

It’s worth the effort

Of course, most people who read this will probably flinch a bit, as taking this on might seem like a big hassle. But consider the following:

  • Finding such people shouldn’t be too tough. For example, I talk about wearables, mobile health options and connected health often with my PCP, and my enthusiasm for them is a little hard to miss. I doubt I’m alone in this respect.
  • All it would take to get started is to get a few of us on board. Yes, providers may have to market such events to patients, offer them coffee and snacks when they attend, and perhaps spend time evaluating the results on the back end. But we’re not talking major investments here.
  • You can’t afford to have patients fear or reject IT categorically. As value-based care becomes the standard, you’ll need their cooperation to meet your goals, and that will almost certainly include access to patient-generated data from mobile apps and wearables. People like me can address their fears and demonstrate the benefits of these technologies without making them defensive.

I hope hospitals and medical practices take advantage of people like me soon. We’re waiting in the wings, and we truly want to see the public support health IT. Let’s work together!

E-Patient Update: The Patient Data Engagement Leader

Posted on October 20, 2016 I Written By

Anne Zieger is a healthcare journalist who has written about the industry for 30 years. Her work has appeared in all of the leading healthcare industry publications, and she's served as editor in chief of several healthcare B2B sites.

As healthcare delivery models shift responsibility for patient health to the patients themselves, it’s becoming more important to give them tools to help them get and stay healthy. Increasingly, digital health tools are filling the bill.

For example, portals are moving from largely billing and scheduling apps to exchanging of patient data, holding two-way conversations between patient and doctor and even tracking key indicators like blood glucose levels. Wearables are slowly becoming capable of helping doctors improve diagnoses, and patterns revealed by big data should soon be used to create personalized treatment plants.

The ultimate goal of all this, of course, is to push as much data power as possible into the hands of consumers. After all, for patients to be engaged with their health, it helps to make them feel in control, and the more sophisticated information they get, the better choices they can make. Or at least that’s how the traditional script reads.

Now, as an e-patient, the above is certainly true for me. Every incremental improvement in the data I get me brings me closer to taking on otherwise overwhelming health challenges. That’s true, in part, because I’m comfortable reading charts, extrapolating conclusions from data points and visualizing ways to make use of the information. But if you want less tech-friendly patients to get on board, they’re going to need help.

The patient engagement leader

And where will that help come from? I’d argue that hospitals and clinics need to create a new position dedicated to helping engage patients, including though not limited to helping them make their health data their own. This position would cut across several disciplines, ranging from patient health education clinical medicine to data analytics.

The person owning this position would need to be current in patient engagement goals across the population and by disease/condition type, understand the preferred usage patterns established by the hospital, ACO, delivery network or clinic and understand trends in health behavior well enough to help steer patients in the right direction.

It also wouldn’t hurt if such a person had a healthy dose of marketing skills under their belt, as part of the patient engagement process is simply selling consumers on the idea that they can and should take more responsibility for their health outcomes. Speaking from personal experience, a good marketer can wheedle, nudge and empower people by turns, and this will be very necessary to boost your engagement.

While this could be a middle management position, it would at least need to have the full support of the C-suite. After all, you can’t promote population-wide improvements in health by nibbling around the edges of the problem. Such measures need to be comprehensive and strategic to the mission of the healthcare organization as a whole, and the person behind the needs to have the authority to see them through.

Patients in control

If things go right, establishing this position would lead to the creation of a better-educated, more-confident patient population with a greater sense of self efficacy regarding their health. While specific goals would vary from one healthcare organization to the other, such an initiative would ideally lead to improvements in key metrics such as A1c levels population-wide, drops in hospital admission and readmission rates and simultaneously, lower spending on more intense modes of care.

Not only that, you could very well see patient satisfaction increase as well. After all, patients may not feel capable of making important health changes on their own, and if you help them do that it stands to reason that they’ll appreciate it.

Ultimately, engaging patients with their health calls for participation by everyone who touches the patient, from techs to the physician, nurses to the billing department. But if you put a patient engagement officer in place, it’s more likely that these efforts will have a focus.

As Patient Engagement Advances, It Raises Questions About Usefulness

Posted on September 26, 2016 I Written By

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media, a highly respected book publisher and technology information provider. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source, software engineering, and health IT, but his editorial output has ranged from a legal guide covering intellectual property to a graphic novel about teenage hackers. His articles have appeared often on EMR & EHR and other blogs in the health IT space. Andy also writes often for O'Reilly's Radar site (http://oreilly.com/) and other publications on policy issues related to the Internet and on trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business. Conferences where he has presented talks include O'Reilly's Open Source Convention, FISL (Brazil), FOSDEM, and DebConf.

Reading ONC’s recent summary of patient engagement capabilities at US hospitals left me feeling both hopeful and wistful. The ONC, as usual, is trying to show off how much progress the field of health IT has made since Meaningful Use started, and the statistics in this dashboard meet those goals. On the other hand, I look at the statistics and wonder when real patient empowerment will emerge from these isolated gains.

The ONC dashboard includes information both on raw data exchange–what Meaningful Use called view, download, and transmit (VDT)–and the uses of that data, which ultimately mean much more than exchange.

I considered at first how important I would find it to download hospital information. I certainly would like my doctors to get the results of tests performed there, and other information related to my status upon discharge, but these supposedly are sent to the primary care physician in a Continuity of Care Document (CCD). If I or a close relative of mine had a difficult or chronic condition, I would certainly benefit from VDT because I would have to be an active advocate and would need the documentation. My point here is that our real goal in health reform is coordinated care, rather than data transfer, and while VDT is an important first step, we must always ask who is using that information.

The ONC did not ask the hospitals how much of their data patients can download. God is in the details, and I am not confident that an affirmative answer to the question of downloading data means patients can get everything that is in their records. For instance, my primary care physician has a patient portal running on eClinicalWorks (not his choice, but the choice of the hospital to which he is affiliated). From this portal I can get only a few pieces of information, such as medications (which I happen to know already, since I am taking them) and lab results. Furthermore, I downloaded the CCD and ran it through a checker provided online by the ONC for a lark, and found that it earned D grades for accurate format. This dismal rating suggests that I couldn’t successfully upload the CCD to another doctor’s EHR.

Still, I don’t want to dismiss the successes in the report. VDT is officially enabled in 7 out of 10 hospitals, a 7-fold growth between 2013 and 2015. Although the dashboard laments that “Critical Access, medium, and small hospitals lag,” the lag is not all that bad. And the dashboard also shows advances in the crucial uses of that data, such as submitting amendments to the data

A critical question in evaluating patient engagement is how the Congress and ONC define it. A summary of the new MACRA law lists several aspects of patient engagement measured under the new system:

  • Viewing, downloading, and transmitting, as defined before. As with the later Meaningful Use requirements, MACRO requires EHRs to offer an API, so that downloading can be done automatically.

  • Secure messaging. Many advances in treating chronic conditions depend on regular communications with patients, and messaging is currently the simplest means toward that goal. Some examples of these advances can be found in my article about a health app challenge. Conventional text messaging is all in plain text, and health care messaging must be secure to meet HIPAA requirements.

  • Educational materials. I discount the impact of static educational materials offered to patients with chronic conditions, whether in the form print brochures or online. But educational materials are part of a coordinated care plan.

  • Incorporating patient-generated data. The MACRA requirements “ask providers to incorporate data contributed by the patient from at least one unique patient.” Lucky little bugger. How will he or she leverage this unprecedented advantage?

That last question is really the nub of the patient engagement issue. In Meaningful Use and MACRA, regulators often require a single instance of some important capability, because they know that once the health care provider has gone through the trouble of setting up that capability, extending it to all patients is less difficult. And it’s heartening to see that 37 percent of hospitals allowed patients to submit patient-generated data in 2015.

Before you accept data from a patient, you need extra infrastructure to make the data useful. For instance:

  • You can check for warning signals that call for intervention, such as an elevated glucose level. This capability suggests a background program running through all the data that comes in and flagging such warning signals.

  • You can evaluate device data to see progress or backsliding in the patient’s treatment program. This requires analytics that understand the meaning of the data (and that can handle noise) so as to produce useful reports.

  • You can create a population health program that incorporates the patient-generated data into activities such as monitoring epidemics. This is also a big analytical capability.

Yes, I’m happy we’ve made progress in using data for patient engagement. A lot of other infrastructure also needs to be created so we can benefit from the big investment these advances required.