5 tactics to enrich patient engagement

Tiffany Nelson, MDTiffany Nelson, MD

Physician practices have long recognized the value of involving patients in their own care.

And in recent years, with practices getting involved in accountable care models that depend on regular and interactive communication between providers and those patients, the need to fully engage individuals has become even more important, both in terms of reimbursement and bolstering outcomes.

Desert Ridge Family Physicians — an eight-physician family practice located in North Phoenix — has always considered patient engagement to be a core value, designing systems and processes to facilitate better patient and family involvement. Based on our experience and successful efforts to improve patient engagement, here are the five strategies you can implement at your practice to bolster patient participation:

1. Foster a strong doctor-patient relationship
Fostering trust and open communication is critical to keeping patients invested in their care. Patients need to feel comfortable, believing the physician truly understands them and their healthcare goals. While this may seem obvious, it is not always easy to accomplish. One way to build strong doctor-patient relationships is to put policies in place that cultivate regular interactions. For instance, a practice could implement scheduling protocols that ensure patients see their primary care physician whenever they make an appointment. In some cases this may require slightly delaying the appointment, but the benefits of having a patient connect with someone with whom they have a rapport can often outweigh the benefits of being seen immediately.

2. Encourage team-based care
Just as important as the doctor-patient relationship are the interactions between the patient and support staff, including medical assistants and nurses. Assigning specific staff members to a particular physician can ensure patients become as comfortable with the support staff as they are with the doctor. Depending on the issue, a patient may even feel more at ease asking questions of the nurse or medical assistant.

3. Make specialists part of the care team
When a patient sees a specialist outside of the practice, a communication breakdown can occur, especially if the patient doesn’t understand exactly what happened during the specialist appointment or lacks clear direction around the next steps for care. What’s more, if a primary physician sees the patient before the specialist has a chance to send a report about the visit, the primary physician may be put in the difficult position of answering patient questions about an appointment of which he or she has little information. To address this challenge, Desert Ridge uses a texting solution that allows the primary provider to send a secure text to the specialist to seek answers to patient questions, often receiving a response before the patient leaves the primary physician’s office. This real-time communication permits all three parties to been the same page about the patient’s care.

4. Make care accessible
It almost goes without saying that the easier it is to get an appointment or obtain answers to health questions, the more patients will interact with their healthcare provider. As such, same day/next day scheduling is particularly effective in increasing patient satisfaction and engagement. Desert Ridge offers same day/next day scheduling for all types of appointments, such as wellness checks, sick visits and chronic disease management. Being accessible when the patient needs their physician is critical to the relationship and this open-access scheduling system enables patients to seek care and advice from their physician, rather than alternative places for medical care, such as retail clinics. 

5. Fully leverage a patient portal
Patients can use a portal to receive test results and request refills at their convenience. They can also use the portal to ask questions directly to their providers or care team, instead of making a telephone call. The physicians at Desert Ridge have all observed that email is far more efficient than telephone calls for routine inquiries, and the quality of messaging has improved. 

[See also: A Guide to Patient Portals for Medical Practices]

A portal can also open additional avenues of communication with patients, facilitating contact outside of the appointment. Consider the example of a patient who, at a recent visit, commits to giving up smoking. To maintain communication with the patient and offer support and encouragement, a provider can schedule a follow-up email via the portal to ask the patient about his or her progress. Similarly, a provider can reach out to a clinically depressed patient who recently switched medications to check on how things are going. Research shows that patients with depression often stop taking their medication within two weeks of starting a new prescription, so receiving timely communication from their physician can ensure medication compliance and support.

Some providers are hesitant to fully use a portal for fear that it will place an unnecessary burden on physicians. We've found the opposite to be true. While our practice portal, which is powered by NextGen Healthcare, has slightly increased the number of messages that their physicians receive, the supplemental contact provides valuable information. In addition, the increased efficiency of email offsets the additional messages.

Currently, around 75 percent of Desert Ridge’s patients are fully enrolled with the practice portal. Instead of traditional enrollment occurring at the front desk, where patients deal with insurance cards and copays, we enroll patients in the exam rooms, using a clinical context. Medical assistants and physicians encourage enrollment as an extension of their care, whether it is to receive their care plan, test results, or to ask questions or send follow-up information. 

While a portal offers a direct path toward patient engagement, it cannot be used in a vacuum. Organizations that leverage this tool along with the aforementioned strategies can enhance doctor-patient relationships, foster better communication and allow greater access to care, ultimately getting individuals more invested in their health.

Tiffany Nelson, MD, is the founder of Desert Ridge Family Physicians.