September 2021 | Point of View

Finding the keys to your digital front door and building better patient experiences

A seamless digital front door that delivers an effective patient experience is no longer just a nice-to-have

Finding the keys to your digital front door and building better patient experiences

We all recognize the drastic impact COVID-19 has had on digital healthcare. Telehealth utilization exploded from pre-pandemic levels. Investments in digital health technologies and virtual care have skyrocketed. And the average healthcare organization, according to IDC Health Insights, completed two years’ worth of digital transformation during the first two months of the pandemic alone.  

Unfortunately for many, however, those digital healthcare experiences aren’t delivering for patients, and more than a quarter of them switched medical providers in 2020 as a result. That’s largely due to the ineffectiveness of organizations’ digital front doors, those integrated patient experiences that empower an array of technological solutions to work together with the aim of seamlessly connecting patients to the right care at the right time. 

If healthcare leaders don’t act now, these digital front doors risk following a path similar to that of electronic health records, which, despite the billions of dollars spent each year, continue to cause significant issues like clinician burnout while making little-to-no improvements in clinical outcomes.   

We understand the challenges healthcare organizations face in this respect. In a period of rapid change, many have rightly poured time, effort, and capital into new apps, portals and other technologies to meet their patients’ needs. But these technologies are only as good as the underlying operating models and processes that drive them—and that’s where organizations have room for improvement.

Why your digital front door might be falling short  

Maybe a patient is told to schedule their appointment online, only to log in and see their providers are not offering any online appointments. Or they receive an appointment scheduling reminder by text with a link to call, only to be left on hold for 20 minutes. Or perhaps your web portal allows for appointment cancellations, but it requires several manual processes on the backend to cancel, leading to no improvement in operational efficiency.  

These are just a few examples of broken, inefficient digital experiences that today’s tech-savvy patients will abide by less than ever before.  

There are three principal reasons behind these unsuccessful efforts. Understanding these issues—and identifying where they exist in your organization—can help power a more effective digital front door. 

Digital and technological investments are not supported with a patient access operating model strategy  

Poor digital experiences will remain so long as patient needs, clinical workflows, and administrative pressures are at odds with one another. That’s why it’s crucial to have a patient access operating model strategy that considers the specific needs of patients, clinicians, patient access representatives, revenue cycle departments, and other functions—and makes it easy for them to be integrated into your digital front door. 

For instance, with governance in place that creates an enterprise-wide, consolidated catalogue of digital tools, assets, and apps that provide experiences that are as seamless as possible, patients won’t have to log in and use multiple types of systems and apps based on the provider, service line, or hospital with which they’re trying to interact. 

But what does it look like without such an operating model? Here are a few common issues we’ve seen: 

  • Offering online appointments is possible, but not all providers are willing to make all of their appointment slots available—typically because they believe it is too difficult to build the virtual element into their workflows without being disruptive 
  • Online registration forms and virtual check-ins are available, but there are no enterprise standards on the types of forms required—or data is not shared or does not flow through, so the patients are asked to fill out multiple forms with redundant information 
  • New digital services and campaigns are marketed to patients without close coordination with the contact center, causing agents to be unaware of how to speak about new offerings and/or not unable to support patients’ questions about these services 

Digital and technical investments are not designed holistically with the patient in mind  

In their haste to adopt digital health technologies—especially in the last 18 months—many organizations have simply sought to add more, rather than scale with a holistic, patient-centered design in mind. This causes the patient experience to be even more complex and challenging, despite the initial good intentions.  

Some common problems include: 

  • Tools are only accessible to a subset of your patient population and may exclude segments based on language, access to high-speed internet, etc. 
  • New technologies are developed with established patients in mind, more often than not, excluding prospective patients who are shopping around for providers based on convenience 
  • Features like automated appointment reminders are implemented, but if the patient needs to reschedule, they can’t do so digitally  

Operational processes behind the digital front door are not designed to support a seamless patient experience across all channels 

Just as investments are often not designed holistically with the patient in mind, so are operational processes behind the digital front door—especially when it comes to supporting a seamless patient experience across the myriad channels patients now prefer.

For instance:  

  • Tools only go so far, often requiring the patient to call a call center or doctor’s office phone number to complete a transaction, like scheduling a certain type of appointment 
  • Patient-facing tools are not integrated with other channels like call centers, so when the patient does reach a call center agent, they often have to start over with their request 
  • Referral processes that get kicked off in the doctor’s office are not integrated into digital channels, meaning patients can’t view the status of their referral or schedule the appointment online 
  • Lack of standards about how scheduling rules are built or maintained, which leads to disjointed experiences for patients and inefficiencies for patient service representatives as they have to try to find and confirm availability  
  • Agents are not empowered to assist patients, often getting blocked from appointment slots or not having access to a wait list for earlier appointment times in the event of a cancellation  

5 best practices for building a better digital front door  

For the digital front door to work, it needs to enable the full spectrum of a patient’s digital experience, from scheduling and referrals, virtual care, digital symptom checks, and online check-ins. But for that to happen, the processes behind those functions must be connected and aligned – not just technologically, but operationally. 

Here are five best practices that can help you get there.  

Reach internal alignment across essential business units and stakeholder groups

Your digital front door is not simply a marketing project, or an IT project, or a clinical one – it requires all those functions to work together to deliver a holistic, patient-centered digital experience that is tied to your broader growth and business strategies. 

Total leadership alignment on access is the biggest thing you can do; it means bringing physicians to the table to agree to create evidence-based access standards, as well as the willingness of financial leadership to invest in patient access as a growth lever and not a cost center. The ideal governance structure is one in which providers are supported in creating a clinical standard they can all buy into collectively, rather than each individual setting their own sets of requirements (or administrators being in the difficult position of telling clinicians what’s best for their patients). 

Having a provider’s voice in the mix is important to ensure that the access and appointment standards your governance team creates are aimed at optimal safety and the best clinical outcomes for your patients. It’s all about balance, about making sure that standards are based first and foremost on clinical need (rather than convenience). With universal standards as your basis, conversations about exceptions and potential changes to your enterprise-wide rules can be grounded in data and compared to actual outcomes. 

Establish collaborative governance processes

This ensures clinicians, access center, operations, marketing, IT, and others are working together. For instance, it’s a great idea to have a physician champion represented in the governance structure, to act as an advocate for clinicians and help with understanding and buy-in. Having a clinical voice at the governance table ensures that the collective voice of your providers is heard and that their perspective is integral to the initiatives that are put forth. 

Create the right incentives and define success

For example, you can’t say your focus is on patient experience while being laser focused on cost per call and call handle time. And you can’t say your focus is on keeping calls short (and cost-effective), while also requiring your agents to ask patients multiple questions before an appointment slot is even offered (e.g., because you are focused on denial avoidance).  

Understand the cost of the investment, in both money and time

Recognize that a digital front door isn’t built overnight – it’s a long-term strategic investment that must be constructed, maintained, and constantly adjusted. 

These are competing notions that lead to fragmented experiences. Leadership and governance from the very top need to break the tie to say, for instance, “We care more about experience than how long our calls go” or “We care more about getting patients in than avoiding a denial at all costs.” Critically, once you do make those decisions, align incentives, and define success, you’ve got to be clear about how you’ll measure it.  

Constantly ask yourself questions to improve your digital front door

Is the digital front door creating the experiences it’s designed to create? Are those experiences sufficiently connected, both technologically and operationally? Is the status quo acceptable? 

Get started today 

It can be overwhelming to look at everything that goes into making a successful digital front door. But getting started doesn’t have to be daunting. Try picking a particular process (like scheduling a routine care appointment) that needs to be enabled by your digital front door, then build on lessons learned from implementing it. Don’t forget, too, to leverage your EHR where you can; as you do, though, make sure to take the time to optimize their systems and configurations to get the most out of your investment. 

Along the way, remember to take steps to modify and align your operating model, constantly assess what patients want (i.e., through data analytics), and develop growth strategies and plans that connect business goals with digital experience goals. This way, you’ll be able to make the most out of your technology investments and, ultimately, maximize reimbursements and optimize your revenue cycle.   

Given the lasting disruptions stemming from the pandemic, an effective, seamless digital front door isn’t just a value-add – it’s a necessity. Do it well and you’ll create key competitive advantages, deliver better patient experiences, improve patient acquisition and retention, and increase revenue for years to come.  

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