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Nearly two years after COVID-19 suddenly shifted healthcare from in-person to virtual appointments, people’s preferences for communicating with physicians have largely shifted.

Hospitals and healthcare systems have responded by ramping up telehealth offerings and increasing staff at their call centers, but a recent survey suggests that providers would benefit from a broader communication and outreach strategy. And that will require a long, hard look at how well — if at all — the consumer data that providers have can be tied to the communication experience.

According to the November 2021 survey from Dynata and Redpoint Global, 80% of healthcare consumers prefer to use digital channels, such as online messaging, texting or virtual visits, to communicate with their providers; this compares to 58% of consumers surveyed in early 2020.

Among other findings from the 2021 survey, 44% of consumers prefer digital communication the majority of the time, 65% reported using telehealth during the pandemic, and 34% plan to continue using telehealth regularly.


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Healthcare strives for a digital front door

Digital communication offers healthcare consumers convenience, and it reduces the need for in-person interactions that may expose them (or their providers) to contagious conditions. Organizations increasingly refer to this communication experience as a “digital front door” — a potential single point of entry for a wide variety of healthcare needs, from asking medical questions to scheduling appointments to filling out forms.

However, standing up a digital front door poses a significant challenge if communication and engagement happen across disparate channels. That’s the case for half of healthcare organizations today, Gartner estimated in its 2020 report on the evolution of healthcare consumer engagement.

“Many consumers can’t get a consistent experience across a healthcare organization’s web app, website, call center, retail health center, hospital or clinic,” said John Nash, chief marketing and strategy officer for Redpoint Global. “Healthcare has so much data about consumers – but consumers are realizing that these organizations don’t know them. That’s because organizations over-invested in point solutions at the expense of developing a strategy.”

This inconsistency exists in large part because a single consumer has a different digital identity at each communication touchpoint, noted Chris Evanguelidi, Redpoint Global’s director of healthcare. Contact the call center, your digital identity is your phone number. Send a patient portal message, it’s your email address and/or patient ID. Engage on social media, it’s your Twitter handle. Converse with a web-based chatbot, it’s your device ID.

Plus, if a health system has grown through M&A or consolidation, there are likely multiple hospitals, urgent care centers and outpatient clinics, not to mention multiple enterprise applications, such as electronic medical records (EMRs). A consumer who has seen doctors in more than one location could have dozens of identities spread across the healthcare spectrum.

“At the enterprise level, healthcare organizations struggle to recognize who a consumer is when they show up,” Evanguelidi said.

Why a single data platform has benefits beyond digital communication

This may not matter for a consumer who, for example, may want to confirm that they have strep throat and get a prescription for an antibiotic. But it’s a big deal for consumers with complex, chronic care needs who communicate with a healthcare organization on a more consistent basis. Effectively engaging these consumers requires a transition from siloed channels of communication to a more holistic approach, Evanguelidi said.

“You need a single patient data platform, and you need a central point of control over the patient journey,” he added. “When you have individual, isolated channels, if you optimize on one, then you may interfere with the goals of the other. You could over-engage with a consumer in the wrong way, and you could add a lot of friction to the process.”

A centralized data platform also benefits healthcare organizations making the shift from fee-for-service to value-based care models. As Evanguelidi put it, a data platform allows for “operating on a single brain” for communication and engagement as well as data analytics, decision support at the point of care and care coordination. Healthcare providers that have enough consumer data in one place can look at the data to provide a recommended course of action based on past history, rather than simply react to a consumer’s current care needs.

“You can’t make decisions if you don’t have data and insight,” Evanguelidi said. That’s why the largest payers and health systems are investing in robust consumer data and analytics environments.”

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