Virtua Health, the largest health system in South New Jersey, saw an uptick in virtual care appointments and digital communications during the pandemic as patients sought care at home. With this shift in patient engagement, many health systems, including Virtua, saw an incredible influx of messages to the care team.
The increase in patient interactions created additional friction in clinical workflows that weren’t optimized to deal with the volume, said Dr. Tarun Kapoor, senior vice president and chief digital transformation officer at Virtua Health.
“In other words, our care teams were tasked with appropriately responding to these additional communications, while also supporting in-person appointments and day-to-day tasks at the hospital or medical practice,” he explained. “It was a huge administrative lift and a challenge to ensure all patients received timely communications and an outstanding overall experience.
“Additionally, there were limited ways to organize and triage the high level of requests,” he continued. “Patients could message their doctors by email or through an EHR portal, as well as call by phone. So, in some regards, care teams had the additional task of serving as a switchboard operator: prioritizing requests, sorting communications and escalating items as appropriate – all activities that took more time from those requiring care and attention on-site.”
Staff knew there needed to be a balance between the vision they had for expertly supporting patients on their care journeys and getting them the timely guidance they needed, and their responsibility to support clinical care teams that were being inundated with requests, updates, patient information and more.
“Our ultimate goal was to find a solution that removed the unnecessary barriers patients encountered when seeking answers or information, and do it in a way that empowered the clinical team to provide the best care experience possible,” Kapoor said.
Health IT vendor Memora Health automates patient-symptom triage, guidance and education through two-way text messaging.
“Their technology platform offered to communicate with our patients through the accessible platform of SMS texting to support them after discharge or after an appointment,” Kapoor explained. “This means there is no phone application necessary to download or any fees associated with using Memora’s platform.
“Technology can help make complex things more simple, and therefore expand opportunities for that meaningful human connection.”
Dr. Tarun Kapoor, Virtua Health
“Patients can receive quick answers when they are at a crossroads on their care journey, and receive reminders about medications, appointments and side effects to look out for,” he continued. “All of this supports a better, easier patient experience.”
In addition, the vendor’s clinical care programs proposed a solution to unburdening care teams through AI-powered care management.
“Memora’s intelligent platform will communicate with patients to ensure they understand the severity of the patient’s concern – which can typically be done within a few quick text-based interactions, usually within the first five interactions,” Kapoor noted. “From there, the patients who need responses most urgently are triaged accordingly, so the care teams can respond quickly.”
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
While Virtua Health still is in the early stages of implementation, it is encouraged at what the future might hold.
“Here is a very common scenario that depicts how the technology will empower patients and decrease the administrative responsibilities placed on care teams,” Kapoor said. “Imagine you are a 45-year-old whose first-ever colonoscopy is coming up. You are bound to have questions about the prep process and what you are meant to do, even if the care team previously walked you through the steps.
“You could consult your friends or the internet for guidance, but there’s no way to guarantee the accuracy of that information,” he continued. “You may also be hesitant to contact the medical staff because it’s late or the question feels minor and you don’t want to be a burden.”
By texting the platform, the patient has immediate access to a virtual care assistant that can field questions, offering the right clinical guidance to keep them on track ahead of their procedure, he added.
“In this scenario, the patient easily receives the information he or she needs, and there is no disruption for the care team – which frees their time for more urgent or complex matters,” he said. “All parties benefit.”
The proof for any enterprise technology is in how it delivers impact for the care teams that use it, and for the patients seeking care, Kapoor said.
“We aim to improve the overall care experience for both patients and clinicians,” he explained. “We want our patients to report they felt well-informed and well-cared-for every step of the way. In the same regard, we want our care teams to feel more effective in their role because we’ve taken the repetitive administrative tasks off their plate, and empowered them to focus more on patient care.”
ADVICE FOR OTHERS
“Burnout is a major concern throughout healthcare. You read about it all the time, and you see it when you speak to others in the industry,” Kapoor noted. “We don’t want talented, compassionate people to leave clinical care for early retirement or other kinds of careers.
“And we don’t want patients waiting longer or experiencing obstacles to receive the care they need,” he continued. “The stakes are high, and so all health systems must innovate to find solutions.”
Kapoor recommends health systems look at their digital entry points and see how they can allow technology to support the onboarding and triaging of patient needs.
“Don’t get me wrong, I was a physician before I entered the realm of digital transformation,” he concluded. “I maintain that nothing is more rewarding than the one-on-one interaction between a caregiver and a patient. But technology can help make complex things more simple, and therefore expand opportunities for that meaningful human connection.”
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