Why patient engagement will only rise in importance

From massive medical centers in the heart of major urban areas to small hospitals in rural areas well off the Interstate Highway System, there exists, in one form or another, a patient engagement initiative. Reflective of that are the 1,100 job openings that returned when I typed in “patient engagement” in the Jobs search box on LinkedIn.

Finding ways to engage with patients makes all kinds of sense in this day of high deductible health plans. More of the healthcare dollar must now come from what is increasingly someone referred to as a healthcare consumer. And that consumer is involved in healthcare in more ways than financial responsibility.

Since 1990, average life expectancy in the United States has increased from 71.8 to 76.4 years for men, and 77.8 to 81.2 years for women. During that same period, the uninsured rate has dropped from 13.9 percent to 9.1 percent. And the number of physician visits is increasing at a rate faster than this country’s population growth.

Not surprisingly, patients are spending more than ever on healthcare, and that’s a big reason they’re called consumers. They are buying a lot, and will be buying even more in the years to come. In 1990, healthcare accounted for 12.2 percent of GDP. Today, it represents 17.5 percent of GDP and is expected to grow to 34 percent by 2040, according to The White House Council of Economic Advisers.

Whether a provider is a solo practitioner, in a group practice or hospital, patients are no longer accepting what the individual in the crisp white lab coat is saying. Healthcare consumers are asking questions regarding a given course of treatment and, with remarkable frequency, the associated costs.

On the treatment process, we live in a world of readily available information on the Internet. From a smartphone, anyone can check their symptoms, care options and expected outcomes. The healthcare consumer comes to their provider knowing more; whether that knowledge is correct or false is not the issue. Healthcare consumers—because it’s their money (as well as their health)—want to be smarter and more involved in the decision-making process. To disregard this is to do so at your own peril.

If you want to see a patient engagement effort yield positive results, do not overlook these success factors:

Be the trusted source. Your patients get information, guidance and support from more than healthcare providers. Along with the Internet, there are communities that focus on and support specific conditions and health is as frequent a topic at the dinner table as sports or classroom activities. Healthcare providers must be healthcare advisers, individuals who take input from patients and play it back in a way that shows it’s being heard and felt to be pertinent.

Use technology to everyone’s advantage. Healthcare has historically been complicated until the iPhone. Now there are devices and systems that enable medical groups to offer online or in-person experiences that ensure communications are correct and consistent. But all those tablets and streaming videos are worthless unless relevant content is created and offered on a regular basis.

Make it all easy to understand. Much of the focus in patient engagement has been on the time between check in and discharge. However, the portion of the healthcare process that is the most confusing and disquieting to consumers is the lack of transparency into what they will owe and then the barrage of bills that come after they have left the facility. Even people in the business can’t easily explain healthcare pricing, so please don’t expect a consumer off the street to understand. I would challenge anyone who states their patient engagement includes this as one of the top issues being addressed today.

How many times have you heard of a patient who was effusive in his praise for a provider, only to see that shift to outright bad-mouthing because the bill that showed up a couple of weeks after he left the hospital or outpatient facility was incomprehensible?

It’s happened to me a few times in situations that involved my wife and daughter. All the goodwill built up while the provider was engaged with my family member, at its first-rate facility, evaporated when nothing on the bill related to anything I could find on my Explanation of Benefits. Looking at patients as healthcare consumers requires we extend the concept of engagement to the bill sent to them afterwards for services rendered.

I will be the first to acknowledge that the healthcare pricing-billing-collecting triad may well be the most complicated in the entire payments industry. But saying “it’s always been complicated” overlooks the fact healthcare now has consumers who will not just accept things.

Let me cite a study Citibank conducted a few years back to understand what prompts consumers to pay bills. As thorough an analysis as it was, the key takeaway was amazingly simple: if consumers understand their bills, they will pay them.