May 21, 2021 7 min read

The Patient Experience is Digital—and We’re Not Going Back

Integrating patient voice and perspective into healthcare strategy is a daunting and critical challenge that Highland can facilitate.

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Jon Berbaum

Jon Berbaum

Hospitals have gone through a massive digital transformation in the last decade, converting “paper” patient data to Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) and Electronic Health Records (EHRs) systems. It’s changed how healthcare organizations function operationally.

Now, hospitals find themselves in the midst of another massive transformation: the digital patient experience.

This change is driven not by regulation but by the increase of consumerism in healthcare over the last two decades, reflected in the proliferation of walk-in clinics, medical apps, wellness apps and wearables, and more. This initially slow trend was tremendously accelerated in 2020 with the “digital shock” during COVID-19 that reshaped expectations for both providers and patients.

Hospitals and healthcare providers have the desire and ability to introduce digital experiences into the entire care delivery process, from new patient acquisition to communicating with their primary care team to billing and reimbursement, and various aspects of care itself. And now, providers are competing with a rapidly evolving landscape, with more innovative tools platforms, and consumer needs than they can possibly address.

In our work guiding hospitals through transforming the digital patient experience, providers typically have dozens of digital initiatives under evaluation with vastly different benefits and concerns, from operational efficiency efforts to digital front door to population health. As a whole, this set of decisions and ramifications make the EMR transformation seem simple by comparison. How are hospital leaders to navigate this landscape?

We believe the best path forward is simple:

First, leaders must acknowledge that patient experience has shifted from a marketing concern to a strategic imperative.

Then, leaders should make strategic technology decisions primarily through the lens of patient experience.

When done correctly, a better patient experience not only leads to improved patient satisfaction scores, but -- more importantly -- better patient outcomes, engagement, and loyalty.

Patient Experience Shifted: From Assumed Outcome to Strategic Imperative

Patient experience is not a new term for providers. Almost all hospitals say the patient experience is essential to care delivery. But patient experience has been assumed as an outcome of talented and caring clinicians and hospital staff members, representing only a small part of the patient journey as a whole. That journey is increasingly digital—spanning websites and applications provided by the hospital and by other healthcare providers, informational websites, wellness apps, social media sites, and more.

Yet, digital and technology decisions at hospitals over the last 20 years have been nearly entirely compliance and needs-based, with patient experience nowhere in sight as a driver of investment and strategy. To name a few:

  • The shift to EMR, finalized by the 2014 federal mandate in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, was driven by a combination of cost-efficiency, interoperability, and forced adoption

  • The website and patient portal was driven by the basic need to be found online and streamline basic tasks and patient communication, deflecting from high-cost and time-consuming phone inquiries

Centering patient experience as a core decision making framework is new for most hospitals. It is no longer voluntary — as we have clearly seen in the role of telemedicine in 2020.

COVID-19 Moved Digital Health Experience to the Core

When the pandemic hit, most hospital systems and providers had simple implementations of telemedicine technology and multi-year roadmaps, expecting years to perfect their strategy.

The pandemic moved the “digital” part of care delivery from future possibility into the immediate core and forced digital health adoption. Most providers made the change in a matter of weeks. Fast-tracking multi-year strategies often meant prioritizing convenience over the patient’s authentic experience.

Fast forward to today: the pandemic accelerated a focus on digital heath massively and irrevocably; technology is not simply a functional tool, but a driver of the patient experience.

Hospitals most often think about care and empathy centered on the in-person, physical experience of care. The shift is now seeing digital healthcare and tools as an extension of care and empathy to the whole hospital care experience.

The Patient Experience is Overwhelmingly Digital

Consumers are now increasingly receiving care—throughout the care journey—via digital platforms, whether provided by the hospital or by some other entity. This is the reality, and it is critical that hospital leaders recognize it. Naturally, hospital leaders’ perspectives weigh heavily toward in-person care delivery, such as the doctor’s office and waiting room. They immerse themselves in this world every day. But this is not the reality, according to most patients.

This new reality has two critical implications:

  1. Patient care and experience begin and end digitally—and are often digital throughout. Patients use digital tools for physician selection, symptom checking, price information, and appointment scheduling. Several components of care coordination, post-care follow-up, interactions with physicians, and billing are also used often by patients, families, and caregivers.

    Failure to tend to this end-to-end experience—with a clear vision of how and when the digital experience replaces or interacts with physical experiences—has real implications: reduced patient satisfaction, acquisition, reduced retention, and potentially reduced quality of care.

  2. Hospitals are competing with new, asymmetrical competitors to deliver care to consumers. Vertically integrated providers like CSV/Aetna, UHG/Optum, and disruptive giants like Amazon, Apple, and Google loom, offering patients more freedom in selecting digital health tools.

    How well healthcare organizations prioritize fostering a positive patient experience and digital patient experience to innovate patient care and drive more value will be a decisive element in reaching success over these competitors. The built-up expertise and advantage of hospitals is not an insurmountable barrier to disruption and alternative models from new types of healthcare providers.

Patient Experience Guides Which Digital and Technology Investments Matter

Deciding to compete, increase patient satisfaction, and improve quality of care through the patient’s perspective makes strategic sense. Yet, it also increases complexity. Where do we focus? What investments do we make first?

Clarity emerges when we combine organizational goals with patient voice.

The disciplines of human-centered research and design have long been used in consumerized industries to gain empathy and understanding of the customer experience, needs, and emotions, and then to respond to that understanding with well-considered solutions. Multiple practices from consumer-focused innovation are useful here: ethnography, qualitative research, design thinking, and rapid prototyping.

Leaders may feel resistance to begin with research, but to truly help patients and make each patient feel cared for across the entire journey, you need to slow down and understand the patient experience first. The patient voice then becomes a lens for generating transformative ideas early on and interweaves in dialogue with organizational strategy — before making significant investments.

Promoting Digital Engagement Across the Entire Patient Journey

Integrating patient voice and perspective into healthcare strategy is a daunting challenge, but preparation can help ensure success. You’ll want to make sure you include:

  1. The “digital front door.” A popular catch-all term for a “one-stop” set of digital capabilities made for people early in the patient journey (e.g. research, physician search, symptom checking, appointment scheduling, etc).

  2. The digital extension of care delivery. Telemedicine, post-visit and test result patient-provider communication, at home care, and more.

  3. Scaled care models in areas where demand outstrips supply. Mental and behavioral health, chronic condition management, ER utilization, and more.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, as location, population demographics, and organizational mission and focus all make a significant difference. But the imperative is clear:

  1. Patient experience must become a strategic driver.

  2. It must be the primary lens for determining which digital and technology investments matter for both the mission and viability of acute care providers.

By adopting a consumer-first mindset and leveraging the tools of consumer focused innovation, hospitals can implement high-quality, personalized end-to-end experiences that promise stronger provider-patient relationships, better health outcomes and long-term viability in an increasingly competitive market.