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Failure to Communicate

The potential blind spot in population health management strategies

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Today's healthcare organizations are devising population health management strategies to improve patient care and reduce costs. As executives move forward with implementing these strategies, many are focusing on the more clinical and logistical aspects-such as gathering data to stratify patients. While this is critical work, healthcare leaders aren't focusing on how to actually execute population health strategies from a tactical perspective. That said, many organizations are often times unaware of a major blind spot in their plans: patient communication.

Patient Communication: Lost in the Shuffle
An effective population health management program is built on strong patient-provider communication. In many cases, it requires healthcare organizations to significantly increase proactive outreach to patients-not just responding to and caring for patients when they are sick, but communicating with them across the care continuum, even when they are well. This frequent and interactive communication is key to keeping patients engaged in their care and enabling them to take responsibility for their own health. In addition, communication helps with care coordination, making sure every member of the care team-including the patient and their family-is on the same page about diagnoses, treatment plans, potential risks and expected outcomes.

As of yet, many organizations have not focused on executing the necessary communication strategies to effectively support a population health program. Some underestimate the need for specific patient communication tactics, while others place a greater emphasis on the logistics of a population health program, such as onboarding clinical technology to enable data collection. Still others look at the perceived expense of implementing a multifaceted communication system and shy away from the costs. When an organization fails to address potential shortfalls in proactive patient communication, it can mean the difference between a robust population health management program and one that falls short in achieving organization objectives.

Strategies for developing a communication program to underpin population health management
A supportive communication program combines technology that improves efficiency with high-touch, live communication, focused on patient outreach to enable better patient engagement. Following are a few tips to keep in mind when designing a communication program to support your population health management strategy.

Assess Patient Communication Preferences
Not every patient communicates in the same way. For example, younger patients may appreciate interacting through text, email, web portal or social media, whereas older patients may prefer more traditional methods, such as a direct phone call with a live person. When developing a patient communication strategy, make sure to fully understand the communication preferences of the patient populations you serve and offer communication venues that meet those needs. 

Leverage the Power of Live-Voice in High-Value Initiatives
Although there are several well-designed technology solutions that remind patients of upcoming appointments or suggest that they schedule annual well visits, automated solutions can only go so far in building patients' commitment to their health and the need to keep up with care. To fully cultivate patient buy-in, organizations should consider leveraging live-voice, human-to-human contact alongside technology solutions. This ensures that patient contact is a two-way conversation. For instance, a live caller speaks directly with patients, permitting the caller to get a sense of whether patients understand their treatment, appreciate what is expected of them in managing their health and answer any questions they have. This allows the organization to proactively intervene if necessary, heading off preventable ER visits or unnecessary re-admissions due to lack of patient compliance with a treatment plan. Consider the positive benefits of using live-voice contact to help with medication adherence, a key component of any care management program. When the staff person contacts the patient, he can check not only that the patients is taking the medication, but also whether she has any questions or concerns, needs further education or is experiencing side effects. This encourages better adherence and improves patient satisfaction. 

Clearly Define Objectives and Capture Performance Metrics
Good communication can be a hard thing to measure. Organizations need to define up front those metrics they will use to gauge the success of a communication program and the impact it is having on population health. When implementing a program, it may be wise to start on a smaller scale and build up over time. For instance, start with a small targeted population, measure the effect of the new strategy and then repeat the work in other areas to expand the reach of the strategy. Make sure when communicating results you use easy-to-understand performance reports so everyone can clearly see the impact communication is having. 

Don't Be Afraid to Outsource
Many organizations understandably fear the prospect of outsourcing patient communication and outreach as it is such an important aspect of their operations. But attempting to retain communications control in-house can leave an organization unable to scale up efforts as the organization grows, leading to inefficiencies and breakdowns that ultimately hinder success. The right communication services partner permits organizations to bridge communication gaps between patients and providers-even when the organization experiences a large influx of new patients due to the changes in today's healthcare environment.

As organizations continue to evolve their population health strategies, the need to enhance patient communication will become even more important. Practices that strategically commit to implementing a communication plan that supports population health will not only help that program succeed, but also improve patient satisfaction going forward, further bolstering the organization's financial viability.

Steve Whitehurst is the vice president and general manager of Stericycle Communication Solutions.



     

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