Health care has been deconstructed in 2020. COVID-19 triggered such dramatic revenue declines that the industry has been forced to rethink care delivery, business, operations and payment models as organizations virtualized sites of service and workforces to every extent possible.
The transition to patient-centered care, while already underway in many payer and provider organizations before the onset of COVID-19, has certainly accelerated this year.
“Consumer engagement is evolving rapidly. Since the onset of the pandemic, the relationship that people have with their health and care is truly changing,” said Carina Edwards, CEO, Quil Health. “With our users alone, we’ve seen a 17 percent increase in the content consumed by patients and that indicates a really strong desire to interact more with their care and become more informed about their care.”
Edwards hosted the Health Evolution virtual gathering, Bold approaches for consumer engagement in a new world. Joining Edwards were Kevin Mahoney, CEO, University of Pennsylvania Health System, Dan Hilferty, CEO, Independence Blue Cross, and Bill Strahan, EVP of HR, Comcast.
The experts outlined steps for moving into that bold new world of consumer-centric care:
“We’re going to see consumerism blast right through into the outpatient side, onto your iPhone or tablet, into the home and I think consumers welcome that,” Mahoney said. “They’re looking forward to easier access to care virtually as opposed to driving, finding a parking spot, finding that sign to a waiting room. So, we’re excited, and we’re ready. And I think consumers will continue to push us in that direction.”
Keep employees, members and patients engaged
More effectively engaging consumers requires a combination of practical tactics and long-term strategies that begin with safeguarding the workforce. Comcast, for its part, had to rapidly virtualize tens of thousands of employees in response to COVID-19.
“The message is we’re going to care for you, we’re going to ensure your basic level of safety,” Strahan said. “We always measure in terms of not just health, but we look at career, financial, and emotional wellness.”
Comcast quickly identified three different types of employees it needed to support: Management, engineers, technical specialists, and others who have the ability to conduct some work remotely or when they travel but are not entirely virtual, 15,000 call center employees who did not previously work remotely, and the tens of thousands of men and women out working in the public who needed connectivity to perform remotely.
“This is where the consumer lens is so important. You can’t just have one set of responses. You always have to remind yourself that you’re beginning with the individual and tailoring to their situation,” Strahan said. “We had protocols that work for each of the kinds of jobs that then broke down much farther.”
On the payer side, the largest concern for Independence Blue Cross members is that they want to understand exactly what’s happening, when it’s safe to access preventative care or see their primary care physician, and to gain an understanding of what safety precautions are being taken, Hilferty said.
“We are just getting to the point where members are comfortable in knowing the system is there, and there are ways to access care that are safe,” Hilferty added.
Dan Hilferty, Independence Blue Cross
Evaluate unmet needs
Even before the pandemic, health care faced any number of unmet needs and those that have been most pressing during COVID-19 include addressing misinformation, the digital divide and behavioral health.
“Other industries have done an amazing job offering personalized online or in person experiences,” Edwards said. Mahoney added that as its core, health care needs to improve how it delivers accurate information because so many people go to Dr. Google and come in with only about half the information they need.
“We are trying to get the scientists at Penn, Jefferson, people from Yale, UCLA, as examples, to be the trusted go-to source,” Mahoney said. “That’s going to be powerful because there’s so much misinformation out there right now.”
The digital divide in this country also needs to be addressed. The difference between people with broadband and those without, in fact, is so stark that Comcast provided broadband level access to an additional 60 million customers this year, according to Strahan.
“That has been the difference between being able to get the basic services for many families or not, whether it is health, education, or employment, so much of what’s essential for people is flowing through the wires,” Strahan said. “So that takes care of the front end to get people that may not have the financial means to buy a premium package that we would offer.”
Another unmet need that COVID-19 has put into the spotlight, of course, is mental health. Virtual consults rose up quickly in the early phases of the pandemic. And the reality that well before this pandemic behavioral health created a stigma under which most people were tentative about admitting, much less addressing, mental health issues means there is an opportunity to ease some of the obstacles.
“Virtual health breaks down that barrier, breaks down that wall, and really enables the opportunity to have an eye-to-eye conversation with the clinician, and then be referred or lead to the next point of care,” Hilferty said. “I see that as a major breakthrough.”
Prepare today for a virtual tomorrow
Providing more accurate information, closing the digital divide, and improving behavioral health are not the only reasons to virtualize care services and workforces.
“Having virtual interactions bodes well for the future,” Hilferty said. “Whether it’s a handheld, your TV screen, or other modes of virtual interaction. We’re at a point where health care needs to go in a direction of complete integration between physical and behavioral health.”
Mahoney added that virtual capabilities enable a higher level of interaction than traditional office visits have ever achieved. Take a patient with hypertension, for example. Typically, a doctor diagnoses, prescribes a medication and then the patient returns 30 or 60 days later for a blood pressure reading and the physician adjusts the dosage accordingly.
Being able to conduct those blood pressure checks on a continuous basis, even every day, at home and uploading the data into a patient record and then adjust medications as needed would be considerably more effective.
“It’s just going to be so much better to have patients 100 percent immersed in their care, as opposed to the episodic way we go about it now,” Mahoney said. “It’s very exciting and hopefully is going to lead to significantly improved health outcomes.”
Preparing for a virtual future is not just about considering the possibilities. An adequate strategy also includes making sure not to leave anything critical behind in the transformation. Hilferty said Independence Blue Cross has not missed a beat and virtual interactions are much better than just being on the telephone he has concerns.
“What I worry about as chief executive of the organization is what are we losing in terms of culture? What are we losing that human interaction has enabled us to build this feeling of camaraderie and teamwork?” Hilferty asked.
While that has worked well enough to date, Strahan added that bringing new people into the organization, whether a new hire or clinical relationship, the reality is that it can be harder to establish those kinds of connections.
“I know in more transactional work, it happens all the time,” Strahan said. “But where there has to be some bonding and cultural affinity for the work to be perfect is different.”
Pursue a ‘bold approach’
Edwards wrapped up the discussion by asking each executive to put forth one bold approach they will move forward in health care.
“The most powerful tool is we will begin to bridge the virtual divide and use distribution channels to pull together clinical and scientific research facilities and create a health care system that truly puts every individual, every family at the center of everything we do and thus, create a healthier community,” Hilferty said.
Affirming the potential of data, Mahoney added: “My big ideas are going to take all the data that’s available, not just your health data, but environmental data and research. We’re going to take all that data and we’re going to use machine learning to come up with a very personalized treatment for preventative plans for our patients.”
Strahan said it is critical to learn from this year’s unfortunate circumstances and the many ways the pandemic is pushing health care into more collaborative digital experiences.
“We need to focus on the kind of collaboration institutionally that we’ve achieved individually through digital and making data free to tell us the story on how to move this individual, in this family, because we’re all working toward a common goal,” Strahan said.
Ultimately, it will be up to providers, payers, and other organizations to weave the various pieces into a cohesive whole that serves patients as accurately, efficiently and successfully as possible.
“It’s the power of organizing and navigating one’s health life to bring all this together,” Edwards said. “And help people navigate that next best action.”
Watch the Bold Approaches for Consumer Engagement in a New World webcast here: