How data and technology facilitate health equity and boost the overall patient experience

"Digital engagement technology, which can be seamlessly integrated into a health system or hospital's existing processes," writes Chelsea King Arthur.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a shift in health care. From exposing health equity concerns to stressing inpatient capacity to highlighting the human toll of delivering care, we have learned that our health care system is imperfect, but there are some bright spots on which we can capitalize.

Patients once again are becoming the central players in the health care delivery system, and their experience in that system matters. How they are engaged in their care matters. And because of this, patient experience matters more now than ever.

Improving the patient experience is a major step toward delivering on the promise of true patient-centered care, and by looking at the overall patient experience, we can assess the extent to which patients are receiving care that is respectful of and responsive to individual patient preferences, needs, and values.1 This further allows us to elicit feedback on the equity and appropriateness of care delivered. This type of patient data will help us make informed decisions about the type of services — and the manner in which they are provided — to ensure equitable care is provided to all patients.

Digital engagement technology can be an equalizer

One convenient way to deliver those services and collect that data is through digital engagement technology, which can be seamlessly integrated into a health system or hospital's existing processes. Digital engagement technology is also a pathway to allow for greater flexibility in outreach and response to patient needs while also increasing equity and access. Imagine how quickly we can access our banking information, purchase an item for pickup, or even chat with friends. The same is possible with digital health care. If a patient is able to digitally engage with their care team, without worrying about if they can receive time off of work or arrange caregivers for their children or even more commonly, fret about finding transportation to their appointment, they can focus on the care being delivered to them and how it’s meeting their needs.

But why digital engagement technology and how will it make for a better experience for patients? Digital engagement technology provides patients with a lower barrier to entry into the health care delivery system. Moreover, patients of all socioeconomic status can be engaged in this manner. We know that mobile phone ownership is high and thus no longer considered a barrier to digital healthcare among low-income people. According to research from the Commonwealth Fund, roughly 90% of lower income Americans own a mobile phone, with 95% of those owning a smartphone, having the capability to text, and maintaining at least 3G internet access.2

Such democratized access to digital technology means patients who often need the most support can be easily reached and have their needs assessed in an environment that is conducive to success. To increase the likelihood that health information and related content is actually used by patients, it needs to be tailored to patient context and communication preferences. Smartphones are what is in the palms of lower income American hands, not computers. To keep this information simple and encourage engagement, health education and patient information can be delivered through secure links sent via text messaging.

We have to empower patients to choose the best way for them to communicate with providers and health systems. Patients can learn how to share and control their data, because that level of ownership and engagement tends to lead to better compliance, which in turn improves outcomes. Furthermore, this mitigates the expensive occurrence of last-minute cancellations and the dreaded no shows. However, there is something more here to be valued. More engagement means more feedback and increased feedback means more opportunities to fine-tune how care is delivered. When we seek to differentiate the services being provided, digital engagement technology allows for a greater, more personalized reach, which can yield improved patient experience.

How to use social determinants of health data to improve care

Data can tell us a great deal about how an individual is accessing the health care system and how that experience is for them. Digital health care technology allows for near instantaneous collection of patient reported outcomes to be analyzed, informing the next encounter. As the appetite for more data-driven solutions that address social determinants of health (SDOH) increases, tools that allow health care organizations to digitally extract data on the patient experience can not only help to improve patient engagement but can also serve to improve health equity.

Two-way messaging, automated outreach and workflows, and SDOH survey collection allow organizations to screen for SDOH needs over time, collect SDOH data, navigate patients to facilities or community resources, capture longitudinal risk, boost routine care to those least likely to receive it, and escalate patients with complex needs or clinical risks sooner. Offering live community-based virtual navigators who ensure workforce diversity and cultural competency then further helps ensure that the most vulnerable patients don’t fall through the cracks.

This feedback loop and bi-directional communication with actual people builds a level of trust and a sense of being heard and seen that patients are experiencing in other consumer driven markets, but craving in health care. The problem is not the data itself, but in the elements we are extracting. We have to ensure we are eliciting patient feedback in safe and non-retaliatory ways and that the patients can see and feel how their personal experiences are impacting changes across the delivery system. The data that’s collected then needs to be shared so that providers know how best to interact with patients.

Leveraging patient data — including SDOH data — can help improve the health care experience and support efforts to improve the equity of care delivered. The questions lie in how to do so in a cost-wise way that also drives care improvements. Digital engagement technology that allows for empathetic, two-way communication gives organizations the ability to provide a personalized experience and also collects meaningful data that can inform future care decisions — on both a micro and macro level — something that is very much craved by patients and needed for healthcare organizations.

Chelsea King Arthur is Vice President, Population and Digital Health at Get Well.

References

1. What Is Patient Experience? Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.Last updated August 2022. Accessed January 2023. https://www.ahrq.gov/cahps/about-cahps/patient-experience/index.html

2. The Time Is Now: The Case for Digital Health Innovation for the Poor and Underserved. The Commonwealth Fund. Posted December 18, 2018. Accessed January 19, 2023. https://bit.ly/2GxUGm2