We’ve had many conversations with leaders of senior care organizations across the country, from home health agencies and senior living communities to skilled nursing facilities, and patient-family engagement was clearly a hot topic for them. That doesn’t mean all of them were ready to start using a mobile app or other technologies to improve their engagement…though many shared their enthusiasm to do so.
But these leaders knew consumer expectations had changed dramatically and that they wanted a much simpler, digital way (esp. mobile) of connecting with their providers. And COVID-19 has only heightened this expectation and need from patients and their family members. No longer would they accept current ways – from leaving voicemails and hoping for a callback to dealing with paper files and experiencing radio silence about their loved ones – as “just the way things are.”
The CEOs, owners, and other leaders we spoke to knew something had to be done. Some saw patient-family engagement as an opportunity to deliver better service and differentiate themselves from the providers down the street. Others were somewhat reluctantly being pulled into this by demands from their clients. Regardless of their motivations, many providers had questions and concerns about engagement and how to get started; so we wanted to address some of these in this article for you.
Concern #1: We’re constantly short-staffed. Who will handle the extra work involved?
This is certainly a valid concern, and we know that many providers across the senior care industry are challenged by staff shortages and turnover issues. Here are a few thoughts for consideration:
- It can be quicker and much more efficient to exchange text messages than getting on phone calls with clients.
- Sending periodic updates to family members on how their loved ones are doing builds trust and gives them peace of mind. You can avoid escalations from anxious and worried family members which can ultimately end up taking a lot of your staff’s time.
- Sharing medical files and forms digitally is much easier than handling faxes and snail mail!
- There are systems that can augment your engagement efforts with automated check-ins and responses to help your staff scale and get more done.
For some organizations, setting up a process for regular communication with clients might require some upfront work. But afterward, your staff might find it much easier and more streamlined to manage than the current (sometimes chaotic) way of engaging clients.
Concern #2: What if clients expect us to respond at all hours?
Of course, the possibility does exist for clients to send you messages late at night or on weekends. What’s important is to set the right expectations about working hours and response times with your stakeholders. You can also find software solutions that can inform and remind clients about these things – for example, a family member sends you a message at 10pm, and the software system sends a simple auto-reply with hours at your facility and when to expect a reply. Pretty simple way to set expectations.
Concern #3: What if we lose control over what’s communicated with clients?
Some leaders have concerns with providing their staff with digital or mobile apps. What if they take photos of patients and post them online? What if they text inappropriate messages to family members?
If you allow your staff to post messages or photos on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media channels, then yes, this would be a valid concern. We’ve also heard quite a number of providers who text their patients’ family members using regular SMS at the request of their clients and in the absence of any solution provided by their organizations. This is not only a HIPAA violation but you also have no way of enforcing policies or overseeing the communication. You probably have less control over what’s communicated with your clients without any technology in place.
There are HIPAA-compliant texting and patient-family engagement solutions that will let you designate only certain individuals who can communicate with your clients and assign user roles and permissions for data access.
Concern #4: We have enough demand for our services…so why do we need to start now?
While a provider might be in a good position now, there are other providers down the street competing for the same patients. And patient-family engagement doesn’t happen overnight by turning on a switch! Even with the right technology solutions in place, it takes time to develop the right processes and advance in your expertise. So it makes sense to start now and keep your leadership position for years to come.
Concern #5: We have an EHR web portal. Isn’t this sufficient?
In general, consumers do not like using web portals of EHR systems to put it mildly. Why? Because it takes so many clicks for them to access data and communicate. Not only that, many EHRs are difficult or impossible to use on a mobile device, and portals were designed primarily for one-way data sharing and transactions, not two-way communication and engagement with clients. We have yet to meet a provider who has told us that their clients love using their EHR portal.
Concern #6: What if this increases liability exposure for my organization?
If you’re like many other provider organizations, you might already have patients or family members texting your staff today using insecure SMS. Your social workers, nurses, and even caregivers might have sensitive patient data sitting on their phones, and when they leave your organization, the data walks out the door with them. You now have a HIPAA violation on your hands and no way to access the data and messages that were communicated with your clients. Providers can have more control over patient data and minimize the risk of data breaches by using secure patient-family engagement solutions.
Advice for Getting Started
Patient-family engagement is critical especially in the current reality with COVID-19, and it is not an endeavor that can be done overnight and by downloading an app. At the same time, patient-family engagement does not have to be overly complex. Here’s a high-level approach for building your engagement capabilities:
- Start small and keep it simple: Pilot in one or two facilities. Equip and empower a small team with solutions and processes.
- Map out a process, but be ready to iterate: You’ll need to develop a workflow and put some policies in place so that your staff knows what to do and can run with the pilot. But you should also set the expectation that things can change, and one of the main goals for the pilot is to learn and develop the most effective engagement for the organization.
- Find the right software solution: The solution should be extremely simple for everyone to use – your patients, family members, and your staff. The solution should also be configurable and able to support your workflows and policies. There are many technology solutions out there, and you want to avoid having to piece together too many different solutions.
- Expand rollout: Once your organization gets comfortable with the process, expand rollout to more facilities and share learnings and best practices from the pilots. You should also keep in mind that different facilities could have different needs, so a “one size fits all” template approach might not be the most effective and to allow room for “localization”.
In future posts, we’ll share more about best practices and different technology solutions that can help you on your patient-family engagement journey.