Problem Solvers

The Path to Productive Patient Communication

Providers are only scratching the surface of what is possible with patient communication tools.

In a constantly changing technological environment, patients expect real-time communication with their HME providers and care teams. Whether the task at hand involves updating insurance information or asking a question about an equipment problem, patients don’t want to play phone tag with a customer service representative. Patients want the right answers from the right source – and they want them now.

“We live in a world where five minutes from now is 10 minutes too late,” says Dylan Ross, the vice president of biomedical and technology solutions at McKesson. “Speed is important, and perhaps even more important is the quality and accuracy of information.”

Patients have always needed high-quality communication with their providers, according to experts from across the HME industry who work on patient engagement. But the landscape has certainly shifted in terms of speed expectations and the communication methods that patients actively engage with.

Traditional Methods Limit Growth

The increase in robocalls over the past decade means that patients are less likely to answer their phone when it comes from an unknown number. Voicemails are often pushed aside as customers lead busy lives.

“Patient inboxes are full of automated emails that go unread,” Ross says. “And even if text messages are slightly more effective, they’re still easily ignored.”

That’s in addition to the fact that patients are not always educated about the myriad ways they can use to contact a provider, causing frustration on both ends of the conversation.

“Some of the biggest problems are when it comes to phone messaging, that inconsistent ability to actually speak live and leaving voicemails back and forth and really not getting anywhere,” Steve Rogers, the vice president of product management at Brightree, tells HME Business. “Then there’s not having the process or the ability to pass along an insurance card other than driving somewhere or attaching it to an email, which would not be a secure way to pass it.”

While the technology requirements of patient communication may be new, the negative consequences for inadequate patient communication have largely remained the same: lower reimbursement rates, and the potential to alienate referral sources.

“Inadequate patient communication has historically affected the provider’s ability to grow and succeed if they negatively impact their relationships with their referral sources,” says Josh Lowery, the general manager of home care solutions at WellSky. “Physicians and hospitals are becoming ever-more increasingly demanding on the post-acute care providers to have strong patient communication tools.”

Ross summed up one of the ultimate problems for providers: If a patient is unresponsive, that usually means their bill remains unpaid.

“No answer means no reimbursement,” Ross says. “Even worse, if a patient isn’t engaged, there is a real risk they’re not adhering to the prescribed therapy, and that impacts not only the individual patient but the healthcare system overall.”

The challenges of patient engagement may be mighty, but the HME industry’s response has been just as robust. Over the past few years, companies like McKesson and Brightree have introduced patient communication tools that make it easier for providers to securely communicate with patients and resolve issues that might have taken three or four phone calls to resolve in the past.

Brightree’s Patient Hub app and web portal, introduced in 2018, places all patient interactions into one automated platform that allows the HME provider to set up push notifications requesting more information from patients or updating them on order and delivery status. Perhaps most importantly, the app encourages the patient to “initiate the conversation” about insurance updates or financial information with the provider, Rogers says.

“That’s where you don’t end up with revenue blocked or needing to schedule follow-ups with physicians and waiting to bill until it’s completed,” he says. “You know you have a method of communicating that the patient has come to love from working with it previously.”

Through its VerbalCare app, launched last summer, McKesson also hopes to solve patient communication woes by making it just as easy to contact a provider as it is to order food delivery or write a restaurant review. The end result may be better health outcomes for the patient and less overall cost on customer support services, according to Ross.

“If a patient needs to consume healthcare, they’re really hoping for two things: quick answers and fast results,” Ross says. “To the degree it’s possible, our goal is to help facilitate both through VerbalCare.”

Consolidating all patient communication into a single mobile app benefits the patient most of all, as it makes them more likely to comply with their therapy regimen and to order resupply materials on time. Furthermore, the latest tools make it possible for patients to remain at home more and not have to travel to receive care, says WellSky’s Lowery.

Last spring, WellSky announced a partnership with Citus Health to launch a patient engagement module for CareTend’s home infusion clients to address documentation and communication needs for providers. The tool has begun to bear fruit in improving efficiency for providers and their patients.

“As our post-acute care providers grow, their most expensive resources are going to be their people,” Lowery says. “That’s why we want providers to be able to work at the top of their licensure and we believe equipping them with tools like the WellSky engagement module goes a long way.”

Opening ‘Infinitely Expendable’ Possibilities

Offering patient communication tools as part of a larger suite of services for HME providers has also been successful for Computers Unlimited, the creator of TIMS Software. Gail Turner, a HME software sales consultant for the company, says that the software has empowered patients to manage their own needs and improved efficiency for CU’s HME clients.

“These same technologies allow providers to manage contact with patients at a much lower cost than traditional methods with equal results,” Turner says. “TIMS Software leverages new technology methods by integrating several applications, including patient resupplies, patient satisfaction surveys, patient product deliveries, and patient billing.”

Mobile apps are only the beginning for HME companies innovating in the patient communication space. Brightree’s Rogers envisions a future in which Patient Hub’s services include the ability to video chat with patients rather than sending a staff member to address equipment issues.

“The platform itself is kind of infinitely expendable,” Rogers says.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of HME Business.

About the Author

Haley Samsel is the Associate Content Editor of HME Business and Mobility Management.

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