At a Glance:

Technologies that can give healthcare organizations a marketing advantage with patients include:

  • Registration kiosks that request payment automatically, in a more comfortable environment for both patients and registration staff
  • Emails that enable patients to schedule initial visits and follow-up care
  • Secure online messaging platforms that enable patients to obtain timely answers to questions they have for their providers both before and after receiving services

In an era of patient-centered medical homes (PCMHs) and accountable care organizations (ACOs), market-savvy patients are beginning to demand that health systems and hospitals offer easier access to care, whether through online services, hotlines, or provider availability after hours and on weekends. 

In the short term, organizations that provide these kinds of consumer-focused interactions will have the upper hand when it comes to attracting and retaining patients. Just like banks and airlines, healthcare organizations that can provide easy-to-use tools to meet consumer demands are more likely to win them as customers—both now and in the future. 

Hospitals and health systems that understand the importance of patient convenience now have a competitive advantage. In a market that will see increasing autonomy in private pay, making the patient experience more convenient and efficient helps increase an organization’s brand value. Eventually, consumer-driven convenience tools will no longer be optional in health care. They will become marketing imperatives.

For example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act requires healthcare organizations to enhance their processes and technologies to improve patient access and engagement. To achieve Stage 2 of meaningful use of electronic health records (EHRs), unaffiliated healthcare organizations must show they are capable of electronically exchanging patient records for at least 10 percent of referrals, as well as providing online medical record access to patients. Stage 3 requirements likely will include even more demanding records-exchange benchmarks.

Just providing enhanced convenience and capabilities, however, may not be enough to satisfy requirements of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and other health plans, which are increasingly basing plan designs, copayments, and premiums on patient compliance with treatment plans outlined by providers. This is a tricky issue, because patient compliance has long been considered an element of health care outside the control of providers and health plans.

Under these pressures, healthcare providers must reevaluate how well their information systems can support this new consumer-focused future. Hospitals and health systems will need to use online tools that keep patients connected and enhance access to care. Such tools also have the added potential of providing healthcare organizations with a marketing advantage.

Engaging Patients Online and On the Go

Several web-supported tools have the power to provide patients enhanced access and convenience as they navigate the continuum of care.

Online registration. Capture patient registration information once—and use the information for every future appointment at any affiliated facility, eliminating the need to request the information again—and you will capture most patients’ hearts. Requests for personal information after an initial visit should be limited to changes in the health plan, benefits, copayments, address, and so on. Better yet, rather than making these requests when the patient arrives for an appointment, why not have patients register online? By registering online, patients can supply information related to insurance, current medications, or information about previous procedures—at their own speed and at a time most convenient for them.

This feature has the added benefit of providing physicians and staff with more accurate and thorough information prior to an appointment or visit. Online preregistration also enables physician practices or hospital staff to concentrate on patients in the office or department, rather than dividing their attention between patients and manual tasks.

Online appointment scheduling. One of the most popular website features for health systems, hospitals, and medical groups, now available from most major vendors, is functionality that allows patients to schedule appointments online. Instead of having to make phone calls to multiple departments after an appointment, such as to schedule laboratory tests, procedures, and specialist visits, patients can take care of all scheduling needs in one session online.

Registration kiosks. Once they arrive at the healthcare facility, patients can use a registration kiosk instead of spending long periods of time in a waiting room, waiting for their turn to check in. Use of a kiosk also can eliminate data entry errors, which could help to prevent claims denials. Kiosks that accept credit card payments often improve copayment and outstanding balance collections, particularly self-pay collections. These kiosks request payment automatically—often in an environment that’s more comfortable for patient and registration staff alike.

Smartphone maps for easy facility navigation. After sending a scheduling request through a PC or kiosk, patients at some health systems receive an email confirmation with visit details, including a facility map they can print at home or view on their smartphones. These maps help patients determine where to park, which entrance to use, and where to go. This simple information can save patients time and frustration, especially in health systems with sprawling complexes with multiple buildings and entrances. It also can help them arrive on time for appointments, saving their care providers time and frustration, too.

Online payment. Web tools that enable patients to access patient responsibility summaries and to pay their bills online are having a positive impact on collections. 

Online test and lab results. More and more routinely, patients receive test and lab results online after their visits. Test results indicating serious health conditions still require personal telephone calls and follow-up, but overall, patients who can access test and lab results online and receive e-mail reminders when follow-up tests are needed or recommended can use the results to spot trends and become more active in their own care. 

Email scheduling and follow-up. If an encounter requires a follow-up visit, patients can be directed via email to the organization’s online scheduling function to request an appointment. The email also can present patients with appointment options (such as the ability to click a button to confirm an appointment). 

Secure messaging platform. A secure messaging platform on a health system’s patient web portal can allow patients to ask their providers questions both before and after a procedure or healthcare encounter. A medical assistant or patient educator often can respond appropriately or direct the concern to the relevant physician or clinician. From the consumer perspective, this connectivity ensures patients remain engaged with the entire care experience. Consumers who have access to this service better understand the reasons they are undergoing tests and procedures, as well as potential costs and less expensive alternatives.

After patients are engaged online, healthcare organizations can further enhance brand affinity by sending preventive care reminders, vaccination advisories, and branded newsletters containing relevant news and details about revenue-generating elective services. With this direct communication, patients can feel satisfied the health system is invested in their outcomes.

Making Online Interaction Easy

Improving patient access electronically may require a significant investment for some health systems, but the payoff will be stronger brand affinity, improved patient compliance, and gains in quality benchmarks that providers are looking at closely. It also will require healthcare organizations to push IT vendors and commercial payers toward more consumer-oriented functionalities. 

Organizations should work closely with their IT teams and vendors in adopting consumer-oriented technologies that improve access and patient engagement. Functionality should include the ability to share records with unaffiliated providers to fulfill Stage 2 requirements for meaningful use.

Hospitals and health system also should urge commercial payers to simplify their plan designs, patient-facing documentation, and websites just as these organizations are working toward providing enhanced transparency and making their billing statements and websites more patient friendly. Pressure to do so currently is coming from employers as well. With patients taking on greater responsibility for their healthcare costs, they have a need for clearer explanations from payers about what was paid for and what the patient owes. These amounts should match the statements from the delivery system. Some innovative insurers are compiling all claims data online for patients and showing them what was charged and what they paid—not with codes, but in common, patient-friendly language.

Finally, forward-looking healthcare organizations should prepare for a future in which price shopping is the norm, if they have not already taken steps to do so. The number of consumers who are searching online for the least expensive imaging study, laboratory test, or procedure is steadily increasing. Hospitals and health systems should consider adopting tools that can make this process easier for patients (for instance, by providing online access to price estimates for an organization’s most frequent services, tests, and procedures, or by enabling patients to submit information regarding an expected visit online and to receive prompt feedback from one of the organization’s customer-service specialists). 

Redefining the Focus

Providers, payers, purchasers, and patients increasingly are focused on the need for improved value—better patient outcomes at lower cost. Patients are becoming progressively more engaged in and accountable for their healthcare decisions and the amount they spend on their care. With this increased responsibility, patients are demanding a healthcare environment tailored to their needs.

To successfully engage patients and meet their needs as consumers, healthcare organizations should look to online tools and venues as a first step in offering higher-quality service and increased convenience. Organizations that can provide such tools will have a competitive edge, especially given the increasing use of patient satisfaction survey scores in determining financial incentives for healthcare organizations. 

By delivering services in a way that patients value and find convenient, hospitals, health systems, and other providers can build patient loyalty and optimize revenue in an era of value-based payment.

Michael Myers is senior vice president, enterprise productstrategy, QuadraMed, Reston, Va. (

Publication Date: Monday, April 01, 2013

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