By Patricia A. Manning LBSW, LPC

The high expectation of value and satisfaction with products and services purchased by U.S. consumers has long been at odds with the typical patient experience of the U.S. healthcare delivery system.

Healthcare delivery organizations are certainly focusing record breaking resources and attention on this gap in perception of acceptable quality patient experience by healthcare consumers.  Deloitte Insights notes in 2021 that 92% of health systems cited consumer satisfaction and engagement as a top goal of their investments in digital health. These organizations are right to be concerned as hospitals, health insurance and ambulatory care providers all rank below the median compared with other industries in consumer satisfaction according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) wrote in the same vein this month that healthcare systems are aware “that consumers’ expectations of health care services are rising. They are watching with concern as new entrants, with well-developed digital capabilities — retailers, technology startups, companies based on new models of care, and pharmacies — step up to serve the increasingly demanding consumer.”

In the Deloitte 2020 Survey of US Health Care Consumers, patients who were asked for a description of “an ideal health care experience” mirrored the findings of a similar study in 2016: “doctors who listen to/care about them, doctors who don’t rush, and clear communication.

Digital technology is not a natural environment for the expression of empathy that is essential in achieving the ideal healthcare patient experience. In 2014, the Pew Foundation wrote in The Web at 25 in the U.S., that the “rapid adoption of social and mobile technologies has altered society’s communication patterns and disrupted the expression of empathy, specifically in digital conversations.” This has spawned the concept of ‘digital empathy’ which has been defined as “the traditional empathic characteristics such as concern and caring for others expressed through computer-mediated communications,” in an excellent discussion of the subject in a 2017 article, A Framework for Designing Digital Health Tools with Empathy.

We are continuing to see solutions for optimizing patient experience that rely too heavily on technology. These solutions are at risk of repeating history and alienating their healthcare consumers. See the “there an app for that’ Muppet meme as a reminder.

Technology enabled care (TEC) is a collective term for telecare, telehealth, telemedicine, mobile, digital and electronic health services. TEC has the potential when used as a care coordination tool by local and virtual multi-disciplinary care teams led by the treating primary care physician to “improve the coordination, efficiency, effectiveness, and value of care, as well as the satisfaction of patients and providers.” This is the model for Team-Based Care that brings the balance to digital health initiatives to achieve the optimal patient experience everyone is chasing – and for best practices, these Technology enabled and Team-Based Care solutions must include and empower both family caregivers and community based organizations to be engaged with the care team.

What about AI? Will it eliminate the need for the human in the circuit without losing authentic empathy?   “It is estimated that AI applications can cut annual US healthcare costs by $150 billion in 2026. A large part of these cost reductions stem from changing the healthcare model from a reactive to a proactive approach, focusing on health management rather than disease treatment. This is expected to result in fewer hospitalizations, less doctor visits, and less treatments. AI-based technology will have an important role in helping people stay healthy via continuous monitoring and coaching and will ensure earlier diagnosis, tailored treatments, and more efficient follow-ups.” For perspective, $150 billion represents approximately 4% of the current annual healthcare budget.

From the HBR article:  “Health systems should recognize that, as is true for any superb consumer experience, digital capabilities are necessary but insufficient to meeting the needs of the consumer/patient.”  TEC and Team-Based Care models together are the cornerstones of “advances in sensors, mobile devices, and telehealth technologies will allow the locations of care and health management to extend well beyond traditional facilities…  telehealth has gone from being an afterthought for providers to a core means of accessing care. Many health systems are piloting delivering care at a patient’s home that has been traditionally delivered at a hospital; care is centered on conditions with defined treatment protocols such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and community-acquired pneumonia.”

Healthcare delivered in the consumer’s home environment will increase dramatically in the next few years. These home-based TEC encounters bring a different set of patient expectations and challenges to healthcare providers. The promise of these digital solutions is to make the humans in the ‘circuit’ more effective and productive, and hopefully less intrusive for the patients.

Finding the Balance of Technology & Team-based Care for Best Patient Experience