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Tools and Strategies to Engage Your Patients: One CIO’s Perspective

May 7, 2014
by Paul Cerrato
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Baystate Health’s CIO, Joel Vengo, has been leading an innovative patient engagement initiative

The medical community has a long way to go before it can lay claim to full patient engagement. It’s estimated that only 10% of the American public uses a digital personal health record, and according to Joel Vengco, vice president and CIO at Baystate Health, a four-hospital health system based in Springfield, Mass., only 16-22 percent use a patient portal.

At the Health IT Summit to be held on May 13-14, 2014 in Boston, and sponsored by the Institute for Health Technology Transformation (iHT2), Vengco and his colleagues will address this and several related issues during the panel discussion entitled “Tools and Strategies to Engage Your Patient Population.”  The panel will explore the latest mobile health and telehealth models and discuss several proven patient engagement strategies. They will also outline the role that providers need to play in engaging and activating their patients, and more globally identify the systemic implications of rethinking the medical model with the activated patient in mind.

Population Health Management Drives Patient Engagement

During a recent interview, Vengco pointed out that the healthcare industry’s interest in patient engagement stems in part from the need to address population health management, which has become a national priority.  The federal government is now forcing health systems to take a closer look at metrics like 30-day hospital readmission rates. And hospitals realize that one way to reduce these rates is to address the needs of their patient population--not just during a hospital stay but before and after it.

At Baystate, they are developing a patient engagement platform that not only provides patients with as much information as possible about their care, it will also serve as a channel for them to connect to their primary care physician or care manager, and act as a resource for educational materials about their disease and upcoming procedures, as well as the benefits from their health plan.

But patient engagement can go even further, says Vengco. It can also offer mobile apps to monitor  health and well-being, securely message clinicians, and offer unique tools like “way finding,” the ability to physically navigate one’s way around a large medical campus. “We’re focused on ways of achieving high touch for patients through technology,” explained Vengco.

Solving the Indifference Issue

The Baystate CIO also points to one reason why so few patients actually use currently available patient portals. Many patient portals are little more than electronic bulletin boards, according to Vengco. They provide the bare minimum, including the patient’s lab results or a report from their ED visit. “There’s nothing in it that really activates the patient to take action. “

So how does a provider organization turn a plain vanilla patient portal into an engaging, entertaining place that people actually want to visit?

One priority is to tailor content so that it meets the needs of each segment of your patient population. Someone in her mid-thirties with a few children has very different interests and needs that someone in her late forties or fifties.  For thirty-somethings, the tech tools might offer a rapid, easy way to get childhood immunizations,  or provide alerts to help them manage their 2-year old’s asthma.

A patient in his late thirties is more likely struggling to keep his weight under control, in which case the IT-enhanced patient engagement tools might mention the health plan’s rebate for a local gym. Similarly, for a woman in her forties, the portal might send out reminders about the value of mammography to detect early stage breast cancer.

Bradley Case, vice president of care innovation at MEDSEEK, another panel participant, also has some insights on why patients aren’t getting very excited about current patient engagement tools.  His take home message: We have to get really good at understanding what the public wants, which many other IT-enabled industries have already figured out. “We have to align our resources and capabilities of what we’re doing in electronic patient engagement to what the patients are actually looking for.”

Case points to the banking industry, for example. “Banking web sites really didn’t start to pick up until they provided services that replaced routine visits to the bank itself.” The lesson for healthcare is clear: Allow patients to schedule routine visits online or request prescription refills.

Interviews with our panelists drive home three key points:

  • The national mandate to tackle population health management demands more robust, individualized patient engagement tools.
  • Taking a lesson from the banking industry, the medical community needs to simplify patients’ lives, moving routine tasks like refilling a prescription or making appointments online.
  • Providers need to move beyond plain vanilla patient portals and begin developing mobile and desktop tools that address the needs of discrete segments of their patient population.