Getting High-Tech to Remain High-Touch

By Molly Menton, Director, Clinical Delivery, Evolent Health

Technology has changed our lives in every imaginable way. Every industry, every sector, and every consumer has been irrevocably changed by the digital revolution. 50 years ago, it would have been only in the Jetsons cartoon that people would make purchases without paper money, go shopping without going to the mall, and call a cab without using a telephone. But here we are; we’re living our space-age dreams from childhood (I’m still waiting for my flying car…) and we’re continually finding ways to redefine our known experiences. There is one industry that has lagged. One of our most powerful industries yet one that is often a lumbering beast with minimal agility: healthcare.

Of course, no one is suggesting that the healthcare industry is still stuck in the days of bloodletting and lobotomies, we’ve managed to adopt many technological advances that have improved patient outcomes, patient safety, and clinical delivery models. We’ve (reluctantly) accepted that EMRs are here to stay and that digital imaging systems really are far better than looking at x-ray films in a crowded hallway. Yet somehow the healthcare industry has been slow to embrace the idea of telemedicine as a modality that can be both high-tech and high-touch.

High-tech healthcare doesn’t have to sacrifice high-touch relationships

There is often a collective gasp when I tell people that the future of telemedicine does not lie in better video capabilities but instead in the virtual space, without cameras. True innovation for telemedicine will mean fewer “face to face” meetings with providers for common medical concerns (think: UTI, Conjunctivitis, URI, etc.) and far more asynchronous interviews in which a condition can be diagnosed and treatment can be prescribed using adaptive interviews and branching logic. The technology will aid in clinical decision making, especially in urgent care and primary care settings. Of course, I’m not suggesting that patients with serious, rare, or life-threatening conditions would benefit from a “virtual visit” but a patient that gets a UTI once a year and simply needs a routine course of antibiotics would benefit greatly. She gets her diagnosis, prescription, and be on her way within minutes without having to leave her home or make an appointment.

The technology is available and as healthcare becomes less authoritarian and more consumer-driven, we must accept that patients will expect and seek out options that allow for quick, uncomplicated diagnosis and treatment for routine medical issues. By embracing adaptive interviewing technology in the virtual space as a complement to current clinical practice versus a supplement, we are signaling to patients that we understand their needs and we respect their time. Gone are the days when patients will keep the same provider for 30 years; patients are now more focused than ever on efficiency, cost, and convenience. I’ve worked with several health systems who have struggled with patient retention and loyalty and the million-dollar question was always “how do we get them to come in?” The answer lies in providing the patients with enough convenience options for non-acute, routine conditions that they are willing to use the same system when they have serious medical needs. Consider the retail industry; many brick and mortar stores are dying on the vine while virtual retailers are blossoming. Why? Because virtual retailers filled a need for customers and in turn, those customers now buy nearly everything online (think: Amazon). According to Pew Research, 79 percent of Americans make purchases online, up from 22 percent just 18 years ago. It doesn’t mean that customers have deviated from brand loyalty, they just buy their products virtually. Imagine if in the next 20 years nearly 80 percent of patients received care online? Is your health system ready for that level of demand?

It is time to accept the fact that the next generation of patients are savvy and although they want relationships, they want relationships on their own terms. By offering user-friendly, cost-effective virtual care options, the health system is demonstrating an understanding that high-tech options meet a specific need for patients. And by meeting that need, you are in turn demonstrating that you care about their needs thus creating a relationship (even if the patient has never set foot in your building) that will build brand loyalty in the future.

High-tech healthcare doesn’t have to sacrifice high-touch relationships. Both things can co-exist and provide the patient with meaningful experiences that allow them to be equal partners in their health care. By accepting that medicine will not always be a face-to-face experience and leveraging technology to provide the patient with virtual care, we are moving with the times instead of fighting against the future. Think about it: had Blockbuster saw the writing on the wall and bought Netflix when they had the chance, things would have turned out very differently for our now nostalgic video store. As healthcare leaders, it is up to us to push the envelope and ensure that traditional medicine welcomes telemedicine warmly so we can continue to take care of our most important charge, our patients.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Evolent Health.

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