Eight Ways Healthcare Orgs Can Improve Communication

Eight Ways Healthcare Orgs Can Improve Communication

Article written by Rachel Zimlich, RN for Managed Healthcare Executive

Tools and Technologies to Enhance Patient Engagement

Healthcare organizations can have every good intention of improving patient care, operations, or employee safety and satisfaction, but without an effective strategy to communicate plans, those efforts can fall flat. Communication really is the cornerstone of healthcare. Physicians interview patients, and patients describe symptoms. Clinicians must communicate with larger healthcare networks about their patients, as well as with payers. When any one of these communication systems fails, quality of care and outcomes suffer, according to the Institute for Healthcare Communication. There is no single way to improve communication – it’s a multi-pronged approach. Here is advice from industry experts on how to advance your communication strategies at every level.

1. Communication is a team approach.

If one thing is certain across all aspects of communication, it’s that it’s never a one-person show. Communication should always be a team effort, and involving clinicians is also key, says Jay R. Anders, MD, chief medical officer at Medicomp Systems, a physician-driven provider of clinically contextual patient data solutions, in Washington, D.C. “Always involve healthcare providers in making any decision that impacts their workflow or patient care,” Anders says. “They are the experts, and they usually know what works best for them – and their patients.” Eliciting input from a large group of clinicians can be a challenge, but gathering data from focused groups can help. “Setting up a provider advisory board is one great way to receive feedback. Make sure to recruit providers from various specialties and make it easy to participate. Offering online and in-person communication methods will be critical to success,” Anders says. “Lastly, remember that patient care comes first, followed closely by everything else. This will and should always be a physician’s main focus.”

2. Make communication second nature. The most effective way to make communication work is to make it a regular and organized part of the healthcare process.

“As all healthcare executives know, a provider’s time is valuable. So the more specific your questions are, the better organized you are, the greater the likelihood that you will receive the input you need,” Anders says of communicating with clinicians. “There’s nothing more frustrating to an already overburdened physician than being bombarded with half-baked questions in a disorganized meeting where they feel like they’ve wasted their time.”

If communication happens often enough and in the right way, it becomes second-nature and more effective, he adds.

“Communication in healthcare should always be recursive and frequent, to eliminate any miscommunication and to ensure understanding on both sides,” says Anders.

3. Refine the message.

Along these same lines, Kevin Riley, senior vice president of health at Vlocity, a developer of industry-specific cloud and mobile software in San Francisco, says it’s important to consolidate and refine communications to make the important discussions stand out. “There’s too many outbound messages. It’s really hard to read,” says Riley, speaking from the health insurer point of view.

Always involve healthcare providers in making any decision that impacts their work flow or patient care.

– Jay R. Anders, MD, Medicomp Systems

“Everyone is sending the provider everything. The provider knows their job. Let’s take it from the angle that if they know their job, let them do their job.”

Rather than contacting physicians frequently or making them request often-used forms or orders, simplify the process and create a database that allows the physician to simply and intuitively find what they already know they need, Riley suggests. A provider doesn’t need to be told that they need to check eligibility, for example, they just need a simple way to do it.

“The best thing the health plan can do is to make a really simple, crisp, clean way for the provider to come in and get their job done,” Riley says. “Historically, provider portals are like going to government websites – it overwhelms you very quickly.”

Ideally, providers should have a space where all the resources they need are accessible in an intuitive database that allows them to search for what they need quickly and efficiently, he adds.

4. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

When it comes to creating systems that are easy to navigate and intuitive, Riley says it’s important to remember that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel.

“Don’t expect someone to learn your navigation. Google has set the standard for navigation,” Riley says. “A big white screen with one big box and one big button. Why are we trying to reinvent it?”

Health insurers often think about selling to consumers, and don’t think often enough about treating providers as customers, he says.

“We need to start improving the way we treat our providers and create a frictionless environment,” he says. “It’s not about new technology, it's about improving the way you communicate right now.”

Health systems and payers should utilize existing technology from the consumer space and tailor it to their own needs. Emulate Google, Riley says, because it set the paradigm for how to communicate with a consumer. Secondly, it’s important that the healthcare industry – specifically payers – start treating providers more like consumers, Riley adds.

5. Serve what the customer is asking for – before they ask for it.

When it comes to communicating, it’s very possible – and common – to have too much of a good thing. The key to avoiding saturating your audience, Riley says, is to make communication more intuitive. The technology is there now, he adds. Study user patterns of data entry and click paths. After a certain amount of input, technology allows systems to guess what the user is trying to do and send them the information they are looking for.

“People would buy into that. I like to get information I care about when I signed up for it,” Riley says. “If you create a shopping experience like Google, you can recognize patterns and set something in front of them.”

Artificial intelligence is making this possible, Riley says, using simple algorithms based on the next step the user is expected to take.

“It’s about having a valued exchange on your own terms,” he says.

The best thing the health plan can do is to make a really simple, crisp, clean way for the provider to come in and get their job done.

– Kevin Riley, SVP & GM Health, Vlocity

6. Better technology equals better care coordination.

The benefits of technology are many, but they certainly have not been used to their full potential in healthcare. In a world where artificial intelligence can predict next steps, Aswini M. Zenooz, MD, chief medical officer and senior vice president and general manager for healthcare and life sciences at Salesforce, a cloud-based software company specializing in customer relations based in San Francisco, says it’s disappointing the progress that has been made with healthcare communication.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and things haven’t improved that much in terms of communications,” says Zenooz. “I think we moved from pagers to paging on cell phones.”

Many times, clinicians find themselves running in circles to find the right provider to communicate with, then end up conversing over messaging systems that are not HIPAA compliant, according to Zenooz, who oversaw the digital transformation at the Department of Veteran Affairs as chief medical officer.

“It ends up being really frustrating for any provider to communicate or have an effective way to coordinate care,” she says. “Even in the best systems I’ve worked in, I’ve found that challenging.”

Finding better ways to connect providers, particularly methods that respect patient privacy rules, is a key to moving communication forward.

7. Automate and use AI to improve outcomes.

One way to improve communication on the patient end is to eliminate the need for it. Technology now allows clinicians to automate instructions and education for patients.

“Say a patient is going to have shoulder surgery,” Zenooz says. “It would be great for the provider to work with manufacturers or payers to automate a way to deliver information about appointment times, ways to communicate to the healthcare team, and other surgical instructions like stretches to perform or when to have no food or drink before surgery.”

Patients who have a smartwatch can track their activity, sleep times, and other data and have it sent to their provider, she adds. This information could help providers see if a patient isn’t sleeping after surgery and maybe prompt them to address pain. An automated workflow using artificial intelligence could use data automatically sent to the provider from a patient device to launch an alert to the provider for intervention, Zenooz says. The information could also be used to generate a transcript of data that other providers could read, and even be redirected to billing. “This brings all the folks into the conversation,” Zenooz says. “This is life-altering for people.”

8. Bring providers and payers together.

Payer and provider communication has always been a difficult area in healthcare, but there is a lot of room to improve outcomes in this area, Zenooz says. It is one of the areas where the lines are becoming grayer, and there is more information that can be shared for the benefit of patients. If payers and providers could share at least some data from electronic health records and payer claims with one another, it would provide a clearer overall picture of the patient. “These are all fragmented areas of data,” Zenooz says. “There are some types of areas that you can share information, and if we make it easier to share that information, especially with chronic disease, we could keep people out of hospitals and improve at-home care. It’s a win-win and I think technology could do this.”

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