Los Angeles-based Cedars-Sinai Medical Center has tapped a digital health startup that came through its inaugural healthcare accelerator program to deploy a digital tool that enhances patient communication and engagement.
The health system has partnered with West Hollywood, Calif.-based startup Well on a secure text messaging platform that will enable front office staff to more effectively communicate with patients.
Cedars-Sinai, a 900-bed hospital and multi-specialty academic medical center with 2,100 physicians, will soon be installing Well’s communication technology across multiple departments, allowing front office staff to interact with patients via text message as well as offering a secure way to gather and store highly-sensitive patient data into the organization’s electronic medical record (EMR), according to a press release.
Well’s HIPAA compliant, enterprise-grade communication software will be installed on staff computers, and immediately adds text messaging capabilities to the health systems’ phone numbers. Incoming messages are routed to the appropriate staff member, and surface pertinent patient information from the medical record to accelerate triage and resolution.
Gene Liu, M.D., otolaryngologist, head and neck surgeon at Cedars-Sinai, says communicating with front-office staff can be a frustrating, time-consuming process for patients. “If you’ve ever called a doctor’s office, you either get an automated phone message or you’re put on hold. It’s always an adventure. Being in healthcare, I go through the back end and text message doctors and staff directly.”
Gene Liu, M.D.
Liu adds, “If that’s the service I want and expect, then, in the end, it’s just so much easier when patients can text the office.” Liu says he sought out the Well team when he learned about their participation last year in the inaugural Cedars-Sinai TechStars Healthcare Accelerator program.
“We’ve since deployed Well’s technology and it has completely transformed the way we engage patients. Our staff is more effective, more efficient, and patients love it,” he says.
Joe Tischler, co-founder and COO of Well Health, says within the healthcare setting, the way front-office staff communicate with patients has not been keeping pace with the communication mediums that people use in everyday life.
“In healthcare, you have all this technology, but at the end of the day, a lot of it benefits the clinician and the technology that staff are using on the front end really hasn’t changed for 20 or 30 years. It’s about time to keep up with how people actually communicate in their daily lives, so that’s the vision of why we did Well.”
Cedars-Sinai also will bolster its patient service by deploying bots that proactively inform and respond to patients regarding appointment time, location, directives, paperwork and more. These automated messages are an extension to the real-time, manual monitoring and response by front-office staff.
“I want to say a large portion of phone calls to the office are for simple information exchanges or questions about appointments or what’s the address, and those are all things that can be done via text message. So from the perspective of patients getting in touch with the office and getting answers to questions, it’s just better through text message and patients feel more connected and engaged,” Liu says.
The text messaging capabilities also enable front-office staff to more quickly and effectively communicate with patients, he says.
“There are many times when, as one example, I have an emergency and you need to call the patients to say, “sorry, something came up, can we move your appointment?” So the front-office staff are calling people, but they’re not answering. And then we said, why don’t we just text them. And half of them were at work and in meetings, so they couldn’t answer the phone, but they were texting back," Liu says.
Shayla Brewer, patient service representative for the adult and pediatric ear, nose and throat clinic at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, says, “Patients are responding quicker to things we need an immediate response to and are more involved with us here at the office through this communication pathway. It’s connecting us and keeping patients engaged and keeping them happier and really improving the experience overall with the department.”
Liu adds, “It makes the communication more streamlined and straight forward. We even have separate text lines for surgery schedulers, so there a lot of easy ways to direct traffic.”
Tischler and co-founder Guillaume de Zwirek, CEO of Well and a former project manager at Google, developed the text messaging communications software platform based on Tischler’s experience in healthcare technology and their individual experiences as patients.
“We’ve had a lot of frustrations as patients trying to understand why it’s so hard to get a hold of anyone, and why everything had to be done on the phone and we noticed all the synergies that were missing in terms of communication,” Tischler says.
While text messaging within healthcare settings for internal communications is fairly common, Cedars-Sinai’s deployment of the messaging communications platform to specifically communicate with patients is pioneering, according to Tischler. Last year, the Federal Communication Commission moved to amend the Telephone Consumer Protection Act for healthcare and created an exemption applying to robocalls and texts to wireless numbers for things like appointments and exams, confirmations and reminders, hospital pre-registration instructions and pre-operative instructions and post discharge follow-up.
“Messaging in healthcare is not necessarily new, but a lot of options out there have been mostly for internal messaging within an institution, so pager replacement,” Tischler says. “When we started working on this, there was no one out there doing it. So, it’s the right place, right time. And, I think we’re also at a critical mass where, generationally speaking, you have actually have patients from young to geriatric who are using text messages. Some people might not know how to initiate text messages but they all know how to respond to them.”
Over time, Cedars-Sinai plans to provide the ability to complete paperwork, check eligibility, bill pay and complete other administrative tasks over text message.
Text messaging also could serve as an efficient way to communicate pre- and post-procedure instructions to patients and to better engage patients about managing their conditions, Liu says.
“If we’re relaying some instructions to patients, such as whether or not they should be taking a medication, or instructions such as, 'here are five things that I want you to do over the next week,' if it’s there in the text message, they can reference it easily. If you have an easy way to relay information on their phone and patients can reference it at any time, that is going to improve compliance. If somebody is coming in for a procedure, and you can send them reminders of what not to do, or medications to stop before the procedure, a lot of things like that that can, either directly or indirectly, improve outcomes,” Liu says.
And, beyond just basic communication, many clinicians and physicians see text messaging as a better way to connect and engage with patients.
Tischler says, “One of the biggest vision points we had with Well was to make messaging as commonplace as having a phone in the front office. Most patients love their doctors, but hate going to the doctor’s office. So, we can change the conversation and add meaningful touch points between patients and office staff.”
Liu adds, “There is a link between engagement, satisfaction and quality, so, in a very simplistic way, the happier patients are, the more likely they are to listen to you.”