Health15 april, 2024

Improving patient experience through telehealth and digital education

Patient Experience Week highlights the importance of virtual care in empowering patients to become active participants in their healthcare journey and how digital patient education can help further improve satisfaction with care.

Patient experience and expectations in the digital age

The annual observance of Patient Experience Week (April 29-May 3, 2024) honors providers who prioritize patients and make an ongoing effort to better their experiences throughout the healthcare ecosystem. Although the event has largely focused on traditional primary care and hospital settings, it is becoming increasingly more common and popular for patients to choose a virtual care experience, which boast high rates of patient satisfaction.

Patients are drawn to the telehealth experience because it tends to be quicker and more convenient for nonemergent healthcare concerns, and in some cases, offers care at a lower cost. However, many patients still feel that the telehealth experience lacks consistency in both technology and communication.

Matt Sullivan, a solution thought leader at Wolters Kluwer, Health, who specializes in virtual care and digital health solutions, says there are two questions that should be driving better virtual patient engagement: “How do you extend the experience after the provider has disconnected, and how do you make sure patients remain supported long after the visit has ended? I think there is power in offering patients educational materials that keep them engaged and supported.” 

The role of telehealth in enhancing patient experience

During the COVID-19 telehealth boom, there was an initial concern about the potential for lower quality of care in the virtual setting, Sullivan recalls. As the market for virtual care has evened out and become better understood, it has become apparent that both patients and providers have a strong preference for virtual care, in many instances.  This is especially true for hybrid models, in which some appointments, such as initial visits or those that require a physical exam, must be done in-person, but the subsequent appoints can easily be held virtually, he says.  “This model is improving quality and patient satisfaction overall, because [patients] still feel they are getting the same quality care from their provider, with the added convenience of accessing this care within their own home. In this sense it is the best of both worlds.” 

Both market research and anecdotal interviews with patients and virtual care providers uphold the narrative that having a hybrid care option increases patient satisfaction with their experience, Sullivan says.

“I think chronic disease management lends itself well to virtual care,” a solution buyer stated in a 2021 research report. “Rural folks particularly will find it convenient, so they don’t have to travel as much.”

“We’ve realized there’s a certain subset of patients who really benefit from telemedicine visits,” noted a primary care physician in the same report. “Those can be patients with transportation issues. A lot of my patients who are in adult family homes, short-term care facilities. If they can do vitals and all those things at the facility, there’s not necessarily a reason they have to come and see me unless there’s a new acute problem. Then, there’s also patients who just like telemed.”

The hybrid model allows for greater: 

  • Convenience of scheduling and attending appointments.
  • Speed to answers and treatment.
  • Access for those who are homebound or have other barriers to in-person care.
  • Connection to specific care services that might carry a stigma or be difficult for patients to initiate in-person (e.g., mental health care, substance use disorders, or HIV PrEP).

Part of the telehealth patient experience that cannot be ignored, Sullivan notes, is ease of use. “If a patient is struggling with finding the camera, turning on the microphone, or having to download a plug-in, that would greatly impact their ability to receive care, and then also their satisfaction with the appointment and visit.”

To avoid a poor patient experience based on tech, many healthcare systems and larger provider organizations will offer multiple telehealth platforms to create flexibility for both patients and care teams.

Despite the fact that, during the pandemic, “many of us got quite familiar with doing video screen-sharing, telecommuting, and other kinds of virtual communication that translate into the virtual care space,” Sullivan says that it behooves healthcare organizations to design all virtual care interactions around their least technically savvy patients in order to remove potential technical barriers to care and positive patient experiences. That can include platforms that offer appointments through teleconferencing, virtual telephone, and even basic telephone options.

Patients want to regain control

The modern consumer has a lot less tolerance for waiting in all interactions, Sullivan says, and healthcare is no exception.

The convenience, speed, and accessibility of telehealth allows patients to assume more control over their healthcare visit and decisions.

“There's far more on-demand access to care,” Sullivan explains, noting that patients can choose to access virtual care providers who perhaps aren’t their regular primary care physicians or specialists on weekends or in express care situations to expedite prescriptions or condense the path to treatment. “It gets [patients] to treatment so much faster and back to feeling in control.”

To this end, virtual care chronic condition apps, which specialize in a particular condition or treatment, are gaining adoption. Some healthcare networks are starting to offer pediatric telehealth membership subscriptions for families. While these options offer control over virtual care, they also usually require out-of-pocket costs. This could present a challenge to one of telehealth’s most often touted benefits – more equitable care access – as the status of coverage and reimbursement for telehealth services continues to be in flux.

While the pay-for-play model of virtual care apps “can certainly exacerbate some of the inequities in healthcare access,” Sullivan views all virtual care options as opportunities for bettering the broader experience. “Oftentimes, in the startup world, virtual care chronic condition apps start as a direct-to-consumer offerings, because it's a way to build the data, build the proof point, prove the ROI of their general solution and value proposition,” he explains. But often the end goal is for these tools to be sold to business entities so they can become more accessible to patients as part of the service of larger care networks.

Empowering patients with accessible, trusted education

Whether receiving care in-person or virtually, “when a patient leaves their appointment, quite frequently they still have unanswered questions, or perhaps they were given a slew of information to the point that it was overload,” Sullivan says.

Recent studies agree, including a 2022 survey that found:

  • Nearly half of the respondents said they did not get all their questions answered during their provider encounter.
  • 80% often or sometimes had follow-up questions.
  • 80% said that if they were to receive patient education, they would be more satisfied with their care.

“Having educational material to reference after the appointment has ended is a critical component to patient satisfaction and the ongoing management of the treatment protocol,” Sullivan says. “Oftentimes clinicians are moving from one appointment to the next. The need to provide supplemental patient education is probably more than the norm, which makes it all the more important that the information that is delivered is comprehensive, so the patient can get their question answered.”

This Patient Experience Week is an appropriate time for virtual care providers to review their digital patient engagement and education offerings to ensure they meet patient needs and enhance and extend the positive care experience. Sullivan recommends providing materials that are:

  • Evidence-based and aligned with the latest clinical best practices.
  • Written at a 4th-to-5th-grade reading level, so that information is clearly understood.
  • Delivered in a tone that is empathetic to whatever condition or procedure is being discussed and based on patient-centric experiences.
  • Easily accessible and continually updated, so the patient can always find and refer back to the information they need and be sure it is relevant.

It comes down to “that personal touch,” Sullivan says. “When the clinician signs off, being able to leave a patient with information that is still very empathetic and motivating is very important to continuing the care. And there is an element of shared decision-making between a provider and a patient that can make all the difference in achieving a positive health outcome."

Health equity and inclusivity in telehealth solutions

A vital element of patient experience is making the patient feel seen, heard, and welcomed at the encounter and as a participant in their own care. Virtual care can help make care more accessible for many underserved patient populations.

“Patients may miss appointments due to transportation or childcare constraints, rather than a lack of desire to meet with their provider,” Sullivan says. “This means having a variety of options to get that care can help reduce health inequity.”

Efforts to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion are further served by virtual care providers’ follow-up actions, he says.

“How do you ensure the patient continues with their treatment or takes their medication again?” Sullivan asks. “Having a patient engagement model is powerful, but having one that can connect in an empathetic way, using voices and imagery that reflect the diverse and vibrant patients being served is one that can begin to break down past barriers of health inequity, by ensuring patients see themselves represented in the information that is guiding after the appointment has ended."

Digital patient education should reflect the population receiving the information, he explains, including:

  • Varying the visual representation of patients and clinicians to feature different body types, skin tones, physical abilities, and even religious and cultural backgrounds.
  • Employing voice-over artists from different cultures to reflect different experiences.
  • Using gender-neutral terminology and images.
  • Accounting for wide variety of socio-economic realities in content.

Whitepaper: Building a better telehealth patient experience through clinical content

Patient Experience Week brings special attention to ways providers are improving care and connections with patients. Telehealth software developers are working toward those same goals by strengthening their offerings with evidence-based clinical and educational content that engages both patients and their care teams. To learn more, download the whitepaper, “How telehealth software developers can get ahead with better clinical content for providers and patients.”

Download the whitepaper

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