In healthcare, the patient access experience is about more than great service and customer satisfaction. It’s also a fundamental part of ensuring that patients adhere to their care plans. And that means it can affect outcomes — for better or worse. Even non-clinical communications between the patient and provider can have an impact. Consider this scenario.
Ted calls his doctor’s office to schedule an appointment with a specialist his doctor referred him to. He’s put on hold and then told he needs to call the specialist instead. He makes that call, only to learn that the specialist’s office can’t find his referral and he needs a diagnostic procedure before the appointment. In frustration, Ted hangs up. He might ask friends to recommend a different specialist — or he might put off the appointment altogether.
Stories like this were all too common, even before the COVID-19 crisis. Once the pandemic hit, providers’ inefficient patient access processes and operational procedures were crippling, causing more patients like Ted to abandon their providers and sometimes even their healthcare needs. During the pandemic, both inquiries and abandoned calls increased significantly. Not surprisingly, adherence to care plans dropped.
Four ways to improve the patient access experience
Filling the gaps in the patient access experience requires more than hiring extra staff. It entails operational changes and contact center technology that includes automation, a seamless omnichannel experience, predictive artificial intelligence (AI) routing and EHR integration.
1. Allow care teams to focus on what matters most with automation and digital deflection
For routine tasks, automation offers patients efficient service and lightens the burden on your team, allowing them to focus on more complex interactions with patients. Create convenient self-service options for scheduling or canceling, paying a bill, or getting directions to an appointment.
You can also automate some outbound communications, such as reminders of a scheduled appointment or notifications of a referral’s authorization status. Proactive communication is an important component in maintaining patients’ adherence to their care plan, which leads to better outcomes. For example, the day before lab work is scheduled, remind the patient how to prepare. After a procedure, remind the patient to contact the provider if there are any problems. For digital channels, you can also include a link to more information in your patient portal.
2. Expand patient options with managed digital and voice channels
Patients want answers and information fast, and they increasingly rely on web messaging, mobile apps and online self-service options to connect. In recent years, patients have started to expect communications with their healthcare providers to be as easy as online banking. To meet those expectations, 24/7 access through digital channels is a must.
Digital channels and self-service options offer more than convenience to patients. They also give providers the power to automate routine tasks and adjust quickly to the variability in demand associated with seasonal illnesses or even larger public health issues. Plus, they can ensure access for both patients and communications staff during a pandemic, natural disaster or other widespread public health issue. When staff can respond to patients’ inquiries using mobile apps, messaging or phones — even when they’re not in the office — patients’ access to their providers continues without disruption.
The connection with your team is critical for patients, but it’s not just convenience that matters. It’s the personal connection. Sometimes, patients prefer talking to a member of the care team, especially when they have a complex question or need to discuss a sensitive issue. This means that, despite the digital trend, the phone is still an important communication channel.
But phone trees and voicemail aren’t enough anymore. Calls should be routed based on the patient’s needs. Voice routing with natural language understanding can direct calls to the right resource. For example, a patient who’s experiencing symptoms might need to speak with a nurse or medical assistant. If a member of the care team isn’t available, the patient might prefer a callback. An automated solution can offer that option.
3. Optimize patient engagement with predictive AI routing
As the first point of contact with patients, healthcare providers’ contact centers play a critical role in triage. Effectively managing the patient journey depends on connecting the patient with the right resource. Sometimes, a bot or self-service option is appropriate. Other times, a patient service representative or nurse is needed.
Your contact center team can learn to make good decisions about when to transfer a caller to a clinical resource. So can an artificial intelligence (AI)-powered bot. Natural language processing can help train a bot to evaluate the patient’s intent and route them to the best resource. It can also spot key words and phrases, such as “chest pain,” and seamlessly transfer the patient to a nurse. If no nurses are available, the patient’s information can be added to a managed queue for a callback.
Through machine learning, an AI solution routes patients based on a wide variety of factors, including medical history, the efficiency of each patient service representative in handling a specific issue or even your staff’s relevant disease-specific knowledge.
Guiding the patient journey in a personalized and empathetic way — even without involving personnel — increases the chances the patient’s issue will be resolved within a single contact.
4. Personalize the patient experience with EHR integration
Personalizing the patient experience is about more than patient satisfaction. It also drives both the care plan and the patient’s adherence to it. That requires context — having access to the right information at the right time. When it comes to clinical details, that context comes from the EHR. And that means it’s critical to integrate the EHR with your contact center solution.
EHR integration enables more patient-centered communication. For example, by simply verifying the patient’s identity, an IVR system can pull up the patient’s vital information before the patient service representative takes the call. This makes the interaction more personalized and efficient. EHR integrations can also make digital engagements more meaningful and effective. As a result, patients are even more likely to rely on digital channels — and that further reduces the burden on contact center staff.
Imagine how different Ted’s interaction could have been using these strategies. This time, Ted automatically receives a notification of his doctor’s referral, along with updates as the care team works on getting authorization for the appointment with the specialist and the necessary diagnostic procedure. When Ted calls to schedule, the patient service representative has everything needed to make the process fast and easy.
Ted also receives reminders and directions to the facility for his appointments. He has some questions, though, so he logs onto the patient portal and starts a chat. When he asks if he should still have the test done, even though he’s running a fever, the chatbot transfers Ted to a nurse. That nurse has Ted’s medical history handy and advises him to go ahead with the test. Ted keeps his appointments and gets a quick diagnosis and care plan, which leads to a much better outcome.
Where to begin
To transform your patient experience with these strategies, you’ll need a clear roadmap. Start by mapping your current patient access experience and compare it with a map of your ideal experience to find your gaps. It can be helpful to consult with a customer experience professional to guide you in this process.
- Identify areas of the workflow where your team spends time doing things that could be automated.
- Note any unmanaged time lapses that create delays in getting answers and information to patients.
- Analyze your key metrics and pinpoint parts of the workflow you could change to improve performance on those metrics.
As you fill out the details in your roadmap, flag the items you can accomplish in the short term that will provide patients with the fast, convenient communication options they increasingly expect. That’s your starting point.
The COVID-19 crisis revealed some inefficiencies in providers’ communication infrastructure we can’t afford to ignore. Addressing those issues now will make certain that when the next crisis hits, you’ll be ready for it.