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Improving patient experience through telehealth and digital education

Patient Experience Week highlights the importance of virtual care in empowering patients to become active participants in their healthcare journey and how digital patient education can help further improve satisfaction with care.

Patient experience and expectations in the digital age

The annual observance of Patient Experience Week (April 29-May 3, 2024) honors providers who prioritize patients and make an ongoing effort to better their experiences throughout the healthcare ecosystem. Although the event has largely focused on traditional primary care and hospital settings, it is becoming increasingly more common and popular for patients to choose a virtual care experience, which boast high rates of patient satisfaction.

Patients are drawn to the telehealth experience because it tends to be quicker and more convenient for nonemergent healthcare concerns, and in some cases, offers care at a lower cost. However, many patients still feel that the telehealth experience lacks consistency in both technology and communication.

Matt Sullivan, a solution thought leader at Wolters Kluwer, Health, who specializes in virtual care and digital health solutions, says there are two questions that should be driving better virtual patient engagement: “How do you extend the experience after the provider has disconnected, and how do you make sure patients remain supported long after the visit has ended? I think there is power in offering patients educational materials that keep them engaged and supported.” 

The role of telehealth in enhancing patient experience

During the COVID-19 telehealth boom, there was an initial concern about the potential for lower quality of care in the virtual setting, Sullivan recalls. As the market for virtual care has evened out and become better understood, it has become apparent that both patients and providers have a strong preference for virtual care, in many instances.  This is especially true for hybrid models, in which some appointments, such as initial visits or those that require a physical exam, must be done in-person, but the subsequent appoints can easily be held virtually, he says.  “This model is improving quality and patient satisfaction overall, because [patients] still feel they are getting the same quality care from their provider, with the added convenience of accessing this care within their own home. In this sense it is the best of both worlds.” 

Both market research and anecdotal interviews with patients and virtual care providers uphold the narrative that having a hybrid care option increases patient satisfaction with their experience, Sullivan says.

“I think chronic disease management lends itself well to virtual care,” a solution buyer stated in a 2021 research report. “Rural folks particularly will find it convenient, so they don’t have to travel as much.”

“We’ve realized there’s a certain subset of patients who really benefit from telemedicine visits,” noted a primary care physician in the same report. “Those can be patients with transportation issues. A lot of my patients who are in adult family homes, short-term care facilities. If they can do vitals and all those things at the facility, there’s not necessarily a reason they have to come and see me unless there’s a new acute problem. Then, there’s also patients who just like telemed.”

The hybrid model allows for greater: 

  • Convenience of scheduling and attending appointments.
  • Speed to answers and treatment.
  • Access for those who are homebound or have other barriers to in-person care.
  • Connection to specific care services that might carry a stigma or be difficult for patients to initiate in-person (e.g., mental health care, substance use disorders, or HIV PrEP).

Part of the telehealth patient experience that cannot be ignored, Sullivan notes, is ease of use. “If a patient is struggling with finding the camera, turning on the microphone, or having to download a plug-in, that would greatly impact their ability to receive care, and then also their satisfaction with the appointment and visit.”

To avoid a poor patient experience based on tech, many healthcare systems and larger provider organizations will offer multiple telehealth platforms to create flexibility for both patients and care teams.

Despite the fact that, during the pandemic, “many of us got quite familiar with doing video screen-sharing, telecommuting, and other kinds of virtual communication that translate into the virtual care space,” Sullivan says that it behooves healthcare organizations to design all virtual care interactions around their least technically savvy patients in order to remove potential technical barriers to care and positive patient experiences. That can include platforms that offer appointments through teleconferencing, virtual telephone, and even basic telephone options.

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