How COVID could lead to more satisfied patients

More than half of people in the United States avoid seeking health care because they find the system convoluted and expensive, according to a recent poll conducted by Harris Poll Consumer Experience Index in partnership with Nashville-based Change Healthcare. A big part of the solution is going to involve care organizations tapping into new digital services to bring them back.

“When half of consumers say they’re avoiding care because the system is too hard to deal with, one could argue that, in a digital economy, the effort required to find, access and pay for care is a social determinant of health,” says William Krause, vice president of Connected Consumer Health at Change Healthcare.

Conducted in May, the survey included 1,945 adults across the country of various generations and with various insurance plans or lack thereof. Their message was clear, say survey administrators: Consumers want health plans and providers to simplify the experience, end the fragmentation and create a one-stop-shop digital solution for accessing, scheduling and paying for health care.

Organizations that capitalize on these demands now will gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace — and it’s already unfolding.

“What we are seeing on the organizational side is obviously a shift to more digital interactions in terms of care delivery but also in terms of the piece of the patient experience that extends beyond clinician-patient interaction,” Alicia Daugherty, managing director for the Market Innovation Center and Service Line Strategy Advisor programs for Advisory Board, tells the Post.

More than 80 percent of survey respondents said they believe shopping for health care should be as easy as shopping for other common services, with 76 percent — mostly baby boomers, who are projected to account for about $260 billion of Medicare’s annual acute-care costs by 2030 — saying they wish there was a single place they could shop for health care.

Similarly, more than seven out of 10 respondents said they want their insurance and health care providers to communicate more via modern, online platforms and 85 percent think it should be as easy to compare health care costs as it is with other services.

In total, two-thirds of consumers surveyed said finding, accessing and paying for care is cumbersome. The COVID-19 pandemic made things even more difficult for patients and doctors but regulators lifted many restrictions that led to major changes. Clinics and hospitals adopted online scheduling platforms that improved communication. The digitization part of this equation still comes with some fragmentation, according to Daugherty, because many providers have invested in technologies that don’t communicate with each other — yet.

“In the interest of time and agility, that integration, while it would be great to have, isn’t as much of a priority. So they are taking a little bit more of a piecemeal approach,” Daugherty says. “I think connecting all of it is the next step.”

The team at Complete Health Care, which operates two clinics in Nashville, has seen its efforts to digitize its work pay off during the pandemic. Having put in place in 2018 technologies that allow the practice to run completely paperless, owner Ty Babcock says the transition to care delivery under COVID was rather seamless. Complete was able to establish pop-up care sites and drive-thru testing — it was one of the few private clinics in the area to do so — because its scheduling system was already online.

Being two steps ahead on that front has allowed Babcock and his team to build new revenue streams from consulting on best practices for reopening. The practice this summer also accounted for nearly 10 percent of Davidson County’s COVID tests. All of this was made possible by making health care more accessible, easier to understand and user-friendly, Babcock says.

“We have tried to take every friction point that we can outside of the patient experience,” he says. “That really is what allowed us to go so quickly to the curbside treatment and virtual waiting room because you are able to do all of the paperwork in your car or at home. What we found is removing those friction points is what has allowed us to not delay their care.”

 

A key cog in the system’s evolution

Telehealth looks to be a big factor in improving patients’ experience. In the Harris/Change survey, three of four consumers said they believe telehealth is “the future of medicine.” About one in five said they used telehealth for the first time due to the pandemic and 65 percent plan to use it more often.

Many providers are meeting them there: With regulatory relief as a tailwind, organizations were able to flex their digital muscles to ramp up virtual doctor visits like never before. That allowed them to collect data and patient feedback to bring to insurer contract negotiations — where upcoming decisions on reimbursement will be critical to the future of telehealth.

So far, providers are reporting positive feedback. Patients are more likely to keep their appointments thanks to increased accessibility and are reporting clinical outcomes similar to in-person visits. Eight in 10 consumers now say COVID has made telehealth an indispensable part of the health care system. But will the entire industry buy in?

“My sense is that, because this pandemic has really introduced consumers to the idea of digital health care, they and their employers are going to begin wanting that to be something that is part of their package,” Daugherty says. “We may see employers more willing to cover virtual care for a greater number of services.”

Babcock estimates full implementation of telehealth in primary care could reach up to 70 percent of all patient visits, but that looks to be a long shot. Some organizations have said the extent of insurance coverage will dictate whether they adopt the technology while others say telehealth is worth it even if reimbursements aren’t at the same level as in-person visits. This would certainly be the case for government-sponsored insurance programs such as Medicaid, which typically cover transportation costs associated with health care.

Babcock also worries that telehealth could evolve into a large corporate model that, if not managed appropriately, might have patients log in to speak with doctors with whom they do not have an established relationship and where doctors don’t have good insights into their medical histories. Trust is a crucial factor in the accuracy of diagnoses and overall quality of care and patients are more likely to disclose their struggles to a physician or nurse with whom they’ve worked before.

This is why it will be vital for independent clinics and health organizations to take strides with technological advancements as the industry evolves under the strain of the pandemic. If smaller players don’t commit, they’ll be left behind.

“There’s going to be enough demand,” Babcock says. “But if you aren’t doing it pretty well, it’s going to be difficult to stay in business and relevant because I think people are going to expect that to be at least an option.”

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