Challenges and upsides of patient engagement

The importance of patient engagement has been widely researched and discussed with evidence supporting its significance on lowering cost and improving patient outcomes. What is interesting is that amid all the industry buzz, patient engagement is not a revolutionary new concept.

In the business world, it is called "consumer engagement." Retailers, banks, and other service related industries have all been providing their customers with information, tips and other forms of communication attempting to engage their consumers. For decades, marketers have been seeking new strategies to engage the customer, create better experiences, and strengthen brand relationships all aimed at improving outcomes. Those who don't deliver are likely to be put out of business by those that meet this demand.

Perhaps the healthcare industry is finally catching up with the rest of the business world and recognizing that in order to grow and be successful in a competitive marketplace, patients need more in the way of information, quality, access, and accountability.

Technology's role
Medical providers have long understood the value of having a patient engaged in their own health. While the concept of "patient engagement" may not be new, what is new is the significant role that technology is having on patient engagement. A recent survey performed by Deloitte suggests patient engagement is seeing the most growth within the use of technology.

Consumers are becoming more trusting of healthcare information online. Social media and patient portal use for healthcare data have also seen significant growth. We are living in a connected and engaged society. The Internet allows us to get what we want at our fingertips. Patients and consumers have started placing these same expectations on healthcare.

Below are a few statistics from Google and PewResearch Center that further support the impact technology is having on patient engagement:

•    4.7 billion: daily Google searches
•    1 in 20 Google searches is for health-related information
•    80 percent of Internet users seek online health information
•    77 percent of patients used a search prior to booking an appointment
•    66 percent of Internet users look online for information about a specific disease or medical problem
•    44 percent of Internet users look online for information about doctors or other health professionals

Some of the latest technologies focused on patient engagement involve managing patient health data, managing communication with physicians, self-care at home, education, and financial management. From wearable tech and medical devices to patient portals and personal health records, all of these innovations are aimed at improving the overall patient experience.

With the implementation of health information exchanges, electronic health records and portals, patients are naturally becoming more engaged in their health. Healthcare institutions and practices should embrace and integrate these changes while seeking to adapt to this new and rapidly evolving landscape.

Here's the rub: All of these tools are useless if the patient does not have interest in taking an active role in their health.
True patient engagement, in fact, requires action that must be initiated and sustained by the individual. It is also through the encouragement of the provider that patients learn to utilize tools and technology that produce improved health results. If neither the provider nor the patient is interested in the utilization of these technologies, then no one will benefit from them. Engagement implies active involvement. All parties must be willing to participate and embrace the shift to technology, in order to achieve better outcomes and reduce costs.

What are the upsides of patient engagement?   
Research has proven that individuals, who are engaged in their health, are more likely to achieve better health outcomes.

Benefits of improved patient engagement include:

•    Reduced costs: Technology such as EMR/EHR can help improve workflow through the use of shared information. This can reduce or eliminate paperwork, assure accurate information and provide patients with a better experience. Technology can reduce errors, improve scheduling, insurance, and payments.

•    Increased communication: Through the use of technology, physicians and patients can communicate with one another more often and provide updates or changes on the patients' condition.

•    Increased patient satisfaction: Through increased communication and more information regarding their health, patients are more confident regarding their condition and diagnoses.

•    Population health: Through the improvement of health-related information systems, scientists can analyze public health data that can help to identify trends and improve outcomes.

Challenges of patient engagement
For healthcare institutions and medical practices, successful patient engagement relies not just on new technology but also on a cultural shift. As the industry adapts to these changes, providers and healthcare administration must be prepared to face obstacles such as:

•    Difficulty shifting behaviors
•    Different communication preferences
•    Lack of health information exchanges
•    Technology ease of use
•    Operational and implementation challenges
•    Workforce reluctance

The many benefits of new health care technology and patient engagement have been proven to outweigh the costs and challenges of implementation. Successful adaptation and cultural shifts, however, rarely occur without obstacles. Also, one of the biggest challenges that remains is the implementation of effective evidence-based methods of measurement for patient engagement.

Current practices devoted to improving patient engagement show a lack of defined guidelines and confusion about what patient engagement is, how it is achieved, and how to produce meaningful outcomes. Researchers and policymakers recognize the importance of having an evidence-based measurement of patient engagement, as it is a necessary tool for planning and implementing initiatives. However, with very few studies and limited data available, there is a lack of clearly defined evidence-based guidelines available.

While researchers and stakeholders continue to debate the most effective methods of measuring patient engagement techniques, more formalized studies are underway.

In the meantime, healthcare providers will be performing their own analytics and measurements regarding their patient engagement activities.

Christine Queally Foisey is the President and CEO of MedSafe