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Increasing physician practice efficiency through better communications strategy

Insight Article - March 21, 2022

Patient Engagement

Patient Care Technology

Practice Efficiency

Brendan Dagg MSc
The move from independent medical practice to employed physicians picked up in the latter part of 2020, as 70% of physicians reported being employed by the end of year.

Hospital systems looking to increase referrals and patient loyalty by becoming vertically integrated are still buying practices, and venture-capital firms and retailers such as CVS are ramping up their efforts in the medical field. For health systems, medical practices are often “loss leaders,” operating in the red. Their value is derived from referring patients to profitable hospital services such as imaging, outpatient testing and surgeries. Higher expenses and continued subsidies for employed physicians remain concerning amid thin health system profit margins.

Private physician practices also face challenges that include falling reimbursements, rising administrative burdens, lack of negotiating leverage, and technology challenges that limit access to actionable data, according to a survey from the American Medical Association.

Regardless of the type of physician practice, effective and HIPAA-compliant communications between providers and patients and among providers can bring efficiencies that reduce costs, engage patients in their care and bring better care decisions.

Patient satisfaction, loyalty can affect profits

The importance of effective communications between patients and provider cannot be overstated, as 91% of patients who were unhappy with their care experience reported they wouldn’t return to the practice or recommend it to others. Retaining happy patients is more cost effective than recruiting and onboarding new patients.

In a recent survey of health executives, 83% said improving patient access using digital tools is a top strategic priority, and 43% rated improving patient satisfaction as a strategic aim.

Happy patients start with competent staff who have the right tools to communicate effectively. However, when physicians were asked to name their top challenges for 2022, they overwhelmingly chose “administrative burdens,” which include staffing issues, prior authorizations and ever-present issues with EHRs.

Healthcare routinely ranks among the top industries for job departures, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In December 2021 alone, nearly 90,000 healthcare workers left their jobs.
 
The continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic impact medical practices in myriad ways. Practices are still playing catch-up with patients who avoided visits during the initial pandemic shutdowns and who remain leery of in-person appointments.
 

Respect the patient at each interaction

Small changes to practice workflows have been shown to affect overall organizational efficiency. The goal of a recent study was to support the Quadruple Aim of reducing costs while improving population health, patient satisfaction and the well-being of medical practice staff. By reducing administrative burdens, an intervention group could offer 48% more patient appointment slots than the control group.

Patient interactions must remain the focus of any practice contemplating workflow changes. At many practices, it’s already impossible to speak with a live person after negotiating a phone tree or sending an email through the patient portal. It’s imperative that any communications platform place patients front and center, with easy, secure and HIPAA-compliant interactions that don’t require the patient to download another mobile app.

Patient reminder calls waste staff time to make them and patient time to listen to them, return the call and/or ignore them. Instead, consider a personalized text message from the provider’s main phone line confirming the appointment. Studies show that 99% of text messages are opened — 97% within 15 minutes. The patient can quickly confirm the appointment or access the provider’s schedule to pick another time.

Accomplish more through text

A communications platform with HIPAA-compliant texting can create efficiencies within the practice in numerous ways besides appointment reminders, allowing staff to have one-to-many asynchronous conversations rather than one-on-one phone interactions. Staff members and providers in the practice or in practices within the same ecosystem can also have secure, asynchronous text conversations by simply @mentioning individuals or team, with those conversations becoming part of the patient record.

Practices can use smart routing to direct incoming messages to the correct clinical, billing or front-office department to ensure no patient slips through the cracks.

How often do practices receive calls about directions, parking or practice policies? Templated responses answered by text rather than phone free up staff time and increase the percentage of on-time patient arrivals. One physician using a HIPAA-compliant, text-based communications platform reports that his practice has never had a patient miss an appointment or arrive late.

Onboarding and front-end practices also can be accomplished by text. Having patients complete and send pre-appointment forms ahead of time can make the visit go more smoothly. Practices want a platform that can track communications, so that only those who haven’t filled out pre-appointment paperwork, for example, receive reminders.

Provide better, more timely patient care

Patients shouldn’t need to take additional steps to communicate with the practice, such as download an app or remember log-in credentials for the patient portal. Mobile devices are convenient, handy and the preferred communications method for an increasingly tech-savvy population.

A communications platform that includes secure photo and video capabilities reduces significant barriers between patient needs and provider time.

Telehealth visits comprised a tiny portion of total medical visits prior to the pandemic. After skyrocketing by a factor of 78 during the early months of 2020, telehealth usage remains 38 times higher than the pre-COVID-19 baseline. Going forward, patients expect synchronous video to continue as a viable provider/patient communication avenue.

Asynchronous communication through text or photographs can increase patient touchpoints and satisfaction while making the practice more efficient. A dermatologist can look at a patient-submitted photo and determine whether a skin condition is harmless or warrants an in-person visit. A surgeon can look at a photo of an incision and determine whether it is healing properly.

Asynchronous communications can also help patients manage their chronic conditions. When integrated with the practice management system, personalized and templated messages can be sent to certain patient cohorts at pre-determined times. A cardiologist, for example, can request blood pressure readings for at-risk patients, or a general practitioner can request blood glucose numbers for diabetes patients. If the numbers look good, the provider can send a positive note that encourages future compliance, while negative numbers may require an appointment.

Conclusion

Medical practices increasingly face administrative burdens and staffing challenges that make truly patient-centered care difficult — if not impossible. But maintaining good patient relations pays dividends through higher patient satisfaction scores, increased loyalty and higher revenues during a time when margins are thin.
 
Secure, HIPAA-complaint asynchronous and synchronous communications can help the same number of staff to manage more patients, preserve provider time for the sickest patients and create workflow efficiencies.
 
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