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Spring 2021 - Safety

Enhancing Doctor-Patient Communication with Technology

In 2016, a study of physicians showed nearly two-thirds believe they deliver quality care. Yet, the same study found only 40 percent of patients believe that is the case. And, 81 percent of patients expressed dissatisfaction with their care experience.1 What’s more, an analysis of 35,000 online physician reviews showed 96 percent of recorded complaints were related to poor communications or poor customer service rather than a physician’s demeanor, diagnostic skills or a diagnosis.2

Unfortunately, while the medical profession has made great strides in debuting better practice management systems, cutting-edge diagnostic tools and emerging care models that pay for quality of care rather than volume of care, this is not so for communications strategies. So, how can facilities improve their doctor-patient communications? The consensus: patient portals and communication platforms that include options for text and social media.2

Patient Portals

Patient portals are an important tool for improving communication between physicians and patients, but they also empower patients to become more engaged in managing their care.3 Specifically, they offer the following benefits:4

1) A secure messaging center. Through portals, patients can ask questions they feel are urgent or that they might have left out during their in-person visit. Such service is one of the quickest ways to build patient trust and improve patient retention rates since the more quickly physicians respond to patients’ questions through their portal, the more patients feel physicians are listening to and care about their health concerns and goals.

2) Access to personal health information. Patient portals provide the quickest way to communicate test and lab results and for patients to view and understand their personal health information (PHI). This access can help them to understand where improvements in their routines can be made and discuss with their physicians how to accomplish their goals. 

3) Engaging care head-on. By accessing PHI, patients are often inspired to tackle their care head-on. Patient portals inspire patients to work more closely with their physicians to stay compliant with their annual care and testing, visit more regularly and remain compliant with follow-up care, leading to improved outcomes.

4) Understanding medical expenses. Patients can now view, understand and plan for their medical expenses, as well as pay their bills to prevent being overwhelmed by any costs. Portals also enable patients to pay by credit card and avoid having delinquent accounts.3

Texting

While patient portals have become an important tool, twice as many patients prefer texting, according to a survey by DrFirst, a provider of e-prescribing and patient medication management solutions. The online survey that included responses from 199 patients who visit the doctor at least once every six months found they favor receiving information via secure text messages when in-person visits and phone calls are not an option. Further, the respondents said they would like the ability to communicate via secure text messaging with a family member’s care team if that loved one were ill. “The survey results confirm our observation that patients want to be more engaged in their care and desire more options for interacting with their healthcare providers using the same communication methods they regularly use in every other part of their life,” said G. Cameron Deemer, president of DrFirst. “Clinicians who use secure text messaging to connect with patients and their family members can improve patient satisfaction, drive medication adherence and empower patients to be more actively involved in their health and wellness.”5

There are four major benefits of developing a secure message system (SMS) program:6

1) Reduced missed appointments. A study found using text reminders reduced the number of missed patient appointments by 12 percent. Sending a text to patients the day before an appointment reminds them they are scheduled to come into the office.

2) Improved patient support. SMS programs can also be used for general patient support — from prescription pick-ups and renewals to announcements about flu shots and other practice news. Texting also works as two-way communication, allowing patients to ask questions or share concerns.

3) Better patient-doctor communication. While physicians must be careful about the information sent in texts due to confidentiality and legal issues, texts can enhance patient-doctor communication. For instance, patients can text the office if they have a question, and the office can contact them through a more secure channel. Or, the practice can contact patients via text stating they need to contact the office. In addition, a study found texting patient results for nonurgent blood tests reduced the number of appointments by 600 per year. 

4) Reduced costs. SMS programs can also reduce a practice’s overall budget by saving resources wasted due to missed appointments and by freeing up employees’ time by automating communications such as prescription and appointment reminders. The latter can be accomplished by signing up for a texting service, which typically costs just a few cents to send a text. And, many services offer monthly deals for higher volumes of messages.

Social Media

The increasing usage of social networks among physicians and patients has had a positive impact on overall healthcare quality. For instance, social media contributes to how patients choose healthcare providers, with a PricewaterhouseCoopers report finding 41 percent of patients allow social media content to impact their choice of hospital or physician. In addition, a study conducted at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands that analyzed more than 1,700 articles found patients’ use cases of social media are divided into six categories: emotional, informational, esteem, network support, social comparison and emotional expression. And, these categories affect their relationship with healthcare providers in various ways such as leading to more equal communication between patients and doctors, contributing to increased switching of doctors, developing more harmonious doctor-patient relationships and resulting in suboptimal interactions between doctors and patients.7

Social media also develops a sense of community. By connecting patients with others at the same care facility or receiving guidance toward the same health goals, social media can help build a network of people supporting each other toward better health. In addition, since patients use social media and blog sites to get healthcare information, they can improve patient education and health literacy.8

Addressing Privacy and Security Concerns

Unfortunately, new technology also comes with privacy and security vulnerabilities. For instance, patient portals carry risks for physicians, including compromised patient information when shared online, patient misinterpretation of test results and notes, raised anxiety levels among patients when viewing clinical notes and test results, a poor medium for informing patients about certain situations such as when providing a serious diagnosis, and the need to get informed consent from patients to use a patient portal to share information with the healthcare team. Therefore, doctors are advised to use robust security and privacy protections, manage expectations, write clear and concise notes, draw attention to important information or desired actions, highlight patient accomplishments, keep their language professional, provide additional information and ensure follow-up plans are clearly visible.3

In addition, SMS programs can have issues with security and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) compliance. In fact, The Joint Commission has banned physicians from using traditional SMS for any communication that contains electronic PHI or includes an order for a patient to a hospital or other healthcare provider, and violations can result in hefty fines. Therefore, it’s imperative for physicians to communicate within a HIPAA-compliant platform. This is also true for emails. Lastly, when using social media sites, questions related to treatment are best answered with a direct response. And, employees’ social networking use during work hours should be monitored since there are many ways in which misuse could result in employer fault under HIPAA.9

References

1. Prophet and GE Healthcare Camden Group. The State of Consumer Healthcare: A Study of Patient Experience. Accessed at www.prophet.com/patientexperience/the-current-state-of-the-patient-experience.html.

2. Ford K. Want to Provide Better Care? Start With a Better Communications Strategy. American Journal of Managed Care, July 29, 2019. Accessed at www.ajmc.com/view/want-to-provide-better-care-start-with-a-better-communications-strategy.

3. Canadian Medical Protective Association. Patient Portals — A New Communication Tool for Doctors and Patients, March 2017. Accessed at www.cmpa-acpm.ca/en/advice-publications/browse-articles/2017/patient-portals-a-new-communication-tool-for-doctors-and-patients#:~:text=Online%20patient%20portals%20are%20emerging%20as%20an%20important,hospitals%2C%20and%20healthcare%20clinics%20in%20Canada%20and%20abroad.

4. iSalus. Patient Portals: A Door to Open Communication, Jan. 20, 2020. Accessed at isalushealthcare.com/blog/patient-portals-a-door-to-open-communication/.

5. Leventhal R. Patients Prefer Texting Docs to Portal Communication, Survey Finds. Healthcare Innovation, Feb. 18, 2019. Accessed at www.hcinnovationgroup.com/population-health-management/mobile-health-mhealth/news/21068923/patients-prefer-texting-docs-to-portal-communication-survey-finds.

6. Barber H. The Top 4 Benefits of SMS for GP Practices. FireText, Feb. 1, 2016. Accessed at www.firetext.co.uk/blog/the-top-4-benefits-of-sms-for-gp-practices.

7. Arnold A. How Social Media Usage Affects Doctor to Patient Relationships. Forbes, Nov. 7, 2017. Accessed at www.forbes.com/sites/andrewarnold/2018/11/07/how-social-media-usage-affects-doctor-to-patient-relationships/?sh=63a645125d3c.

8. Heath S. 3 Ways Social Media in Healthcare Can Improve Patient Engagement. Patient Engagement, March 7, 2016. Accessed at patientengagementhit.com/news/3-ways-social-media-in-healthcare-can-improve-patient-engagement.

9. Continuum. What Does HIPAA Think About You Texting Patients? Accessed at www.carecloud.com/continuum/hipaas-stance-on-doctors-texting-patients.

Ronale Tucker Rhodes, MS
Ronale Tucker Rhodes, MS, is the Senior Editor-in-Chief of BioSupply Trends Quarterly magazine.