Like most healthcare professionals, my job requires that I wear multiple hats on any given day. As a registered nurse and chief clinical officer, I spend most of my time working directly with health systems on improving their clinical communications processes. But it was in my role as a marketer where I found clarity around one of the industry’s biggest challenges – patient engagement.
Providers, payers and physicians all agree that patient engagement is critical to the evolution of our health care system, and that it can be improved by reaching patients using different modes of technology. Both physicians and patients are starting to become more comfortable communicating in new venues, whether through phone, e-mail, text or web portals. But it seems that we’ve become more focused on the mode of communication while losing sight of a core communication skill that marketers rely on every day.
Marketers spend amazing amounts of time and money developing a deep knowledge of their audiences and tailoring messages so that they resonate with the right people. They recognize the mode of communication is only one factor in measuring success. Yes, some folks may prefer e-mail in comparison to a phone call, but what the message says, and how we say it, needs to stick. Regardless of their technical prowess, the patients in our system – our “audiences” – vary widely when it comes to healthcare IQ. And while our audience is slowly shifting toward becoming smarter healthcare consumers, its variation will likely never dramatically change. We have the super-mom who looks up her children’s symptoms on WebMD, offering her diagnoses as they walk through the door. We have the elderly population that may be well-versed on one chronic disease and is used to many procedures and tests. We have the 20-something, fresh out of college and navigating the system for the first time. We have the immigrant who may struggle to read or understand medication instructions. Some patients are often too intimidated to ask questions, and others can’t ask enough.
In order to truly see patient engagement, providers need to know their audience and make the necessary adjustments to serve them. I know what you’re thinking – in addition to everything on providers’ plates, we’re asking them to become better communicators too? Yes. With where the industry is headed, this is going to be key to every provider’s success. At December’s IHI conference, I heard a physician lamenting a very real challenge of bundled payments. He said, “I give the patients the information they need, but they don’t follow it.” And with his salary tied to outcomes, he’s incented to make it work. To me, he nailed the crux of the issue when he came to the realization, “So, maybe I’m not going at it the right way or relaying the information in a way that will move them to action.”
As a clinician, I consider myself a savvy healthcare consumer. But even I have days where I’m with a family member at the doctor’s office, and I’m looking at a long list of medications with little to no context – and it doesn’t matter that I’ve received it over email or over the phone. If we want patients to be involved in their care and to become better healthcare consumers, the industry needs to place as much emphasis on the kind of messages we’re delivering as we are on the mode of the communications being sent.