Will Technology Replace a Human Touch in Healthcare?

By Mary Kay Thalken, RN, MBA, Chief Clinical Officer, Ensocare
Twitter: @EnsocareCircle

The past few years have given us many advances in healthcare: Electronic health records (EHRs). Wearable devices. Care management software. Apps that play a critical role in monitoring patient vital signs. The list goes on and on.

But with these technological developments comes a fear that we’re all forced to reckon with: that, in the rush to digitize every aspect of the healthcare journey, we’re losing the human touch that distinguishes care interactions from everything else in the patient’s life. After all, the patient’s relationship with a physician shouldn’t be on equal footing with that person’s relationship with their Uber driver.

The greatest trepidation in healthcare that I’ve seen as we’ve extolled the virtues of instant messaging, automated placement and other digital interactions is that, in the march to progress, the very facilities we’re trying to help are missing out on the critical touch points that patients remember and rely upon. Maintaining loyalty is crucial; even as consumers, and millennials in particular, become brand-agnostic, the relationship with a provider remains important for long-term wellbeing.

I’m not going to say these fears are overblown, but I will tell you that healthcare technology providers like ours and many others have bent over backwards to ensure that, not only do healthcare IT solutions not eliminate the human touch, but in most instances, they’re actually going to improve that provider-patient relationship by returning valuable time through decreased administrative burden that can in turn be spent in more important patient-facing activities.

Here are some of the most exciting things happening right now in this important area of progress.

Opening Communication Avenues
The way we communicate has changed dramatically for all of us in recent years, and healthcare has notoriously struggled to keep up. To the average millennial, gen Z-er and even those of boomer and other generations, text messaging has replaced actual conversation as the medium of choice for communication.

Adjusting to this new normal has been onerous at best for healthcare. After all, we’re an industry where many physicians and other care team members still furiously scribble notes and require that appointments be booked weeks in advance. Getting traditionalists to ascribe to instant messaging software isn’t always easy.

But look at how this communication has the potential to actually improve the patient experience. No matter how a person may feel about resorting to texting as the primary means with which they communicate with, well, everyone, the simple truth is we’re not going back to old-school methods.

There’s a reason younger generations prefer texting to phone calls or even emails. The ability to instantly send messages back and forth from members of the care team brings a degree of interaction that wouldn’t have been possible in an era of faxing, voicemail and in-person appointments.

If I’m a patient, I can pose a question to my provider using a messaging app within my patient portal (which, by the way, I now have access to), and he or she can respond with an answer. No need to go through an answering service or administrative assistant to get the answer I seek.

These communications aren’t limited to one-on-one formats. Modern applications allow members of the care team to communicate with each other, to the patient, or to everyone all at once, ensuring the right alerts and notifications are going to the right people. Family members of the patient can also be brought in.

This democratization of communication by way of electronic messaging improves the patient experience because it brings more access to care team members. It expedites care and encourages ongoing care discussions that simply don’t take place when a patient only comes in once per year for a physical or when they’re being shuffled between specialists.

In this way, tech actually makes the various parties within healthcare more accessible and human to the patient. Instead of a system, the patient gets to deal with individuals, and that’s a huge boon to their wellbeing.

Greater Transparency
Reliance on technology also creates an incredible degree of transparency for both providers and patients.

Providers, for instance, now have an unprecedented look at their patients’ health even after they leave the facility. With wearables, you can monitor vital signs to make sure a patient’s health progresses the way it’s intended. Whether those wearables track passive statistics, such as pulse and sleep, or require input from the patient, such as keying in a glucose reading, the end result is that members of the care team can see this information in real-time and respond as necessary.

Transparency is particularly helpful in the discharge process, a historically and notoriously fragmented time during a healthcare episode. No longer is a case manager discharging a patient and hoping for the best, with only minimal interaction with the post-acute care facility. Technology gives that case manager a means of contacting both the patient and the post-acute provider on an interventional or ongoing basis for months to come. With the right technology, the relationship with all parties is strengthened and everyone is on the same page with the care plan.

This no doubt benefits the patient, who sees their relationship with all providers improved and iterated upon over time. When patients are empowered to take a look at their health record and ask questions, knowing the answers will come within minutes as opposed to days, and when they know they can seek clarification at all times, their health will benefit.

Comparison Shopping
Price transparency within healthcare has been spoken of as a must-have in a value-based environment, and it’s led to many sleepless nights for providers. You and I know understand the complexities that go into pricing a particular service or procedure, but it’s all white noise to most patients, who just want to know what they’re going to owe at the end of their visit.

As apps give patients more access to Medicare and Medicaid ratings, reviews of facilities and individual doctors, an in-depth look at the mechanisms of their insurance claims, their own health record, and, of course, the price of services, patients will acquire a birds-eye view of their providers that they never had before.

Gaps in coverage or visibility are going to stand out like spotlights. For example, if a discrepancy between a quoted price and what they paid is evident, patients may consider a healthcare facility whose estimate and final price are more closely aligned.

Healthcare providers should see this as an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Those who invest in technology of all kinds that empower the patient as their own advocate will ultimately benefit. By meeting and exceeding the patient’s expectations for the flow of information and the technology that acts as the centerpiece of care, your facility can ensure loyalty and provide an optimized experience for the modern age.

Consumerism has come to healthcare, and those who embrace it will establish themselves as a humanistic, caring partner. And it’s all possible thanks to what can sometimes be seen as impersonal: technology.

Tech’s Important…But Your People Are Still the Glue That Holds It All Together
Technology is only as good as the people who use it.

At the end of the day, an app is just a means to bring a provider and a patient closer together. An advanced piece of discharge software is only valuable so long as it improves patient experiences and, ultimately, clinical outcomes.

Nothing will take the place of care-based, worthwhile interactions between provider and patient. A patient doesn’t care about the format in which a message is sent or how productive a behind-the-scenes piece of software is; what they care about is that a nurse or a doctor took the time to respond to their needs and concerns.

Technology supplements human interaction; it will never replace it. It’s our job to take what’s available and craft the most exceptional patient experience possible.

This article was originally published on Ensocare and is republished here with permission.