Patient Engagement 101: Digital Trends in Healthcare That Are Here to Stay
We are currently living in a digital age where virtually anything can be done online. You can buy a car without visiting a dealership, deposit a check into your bank account without (thankfully) having to visit a physical branch, and access vital healthcare services from the comfort of your own living room.
In recent years — particularly since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic just two years ago — digital trends have completely transformed the healthcare sector. In the face of lockdowns and social distancing, digital tools were critical in enabling patients to continue to access healthcare through virtual doctors’ appointments, online prescription refills, web-based symptom checkers, and more.
As we slowly begin to emerge from the pandemic, digital trends in healthcare are only set to accelerate. This is partly being led by major staff shortages in healthcare in the wake of the so-called “Great Resignation” and severe overcrowding in hospitals. With multiple factors presenting major barriers to accessing healthcare services, digital trends serve to provide viable solutions for patients and providers alike.
Patient Engagement in Healthcare
Patient engagement refers to the level at which healthcare customers are actively involved in decisions regarding their health, wellness, and care. When a patient is highly engaged, they are more empowered to ask questions or request more information about the decisions of healthcare providers and their treatment plan. This level of participation requires a tight partnership between patients, families, and healthcare providers, resulting in more personalized care.
Patient engagement is important because it is a key determinant that leads to improved health outcomes. For example, engaged patients tend to be more interested in their health and are therefore more likely to seek out information about health topics that are relevant to them. As a result, engaged patients are well-informed and motivated to be involved in their own medical care, and become more familiar with possible treatments, medication, and recuperation options as well as other aspects of the healthcare system.
The Negative Effects of Staff Shortages
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed many weaknesses in the global healthcare system, which has led to staffing becoming a major problem worldwide.
According to the World Health Organization, there will be a global shortage of 9.9 million healthcare workers by 2030. The United States alone will need to hire 2.3 million new healthcare workers by 2025 to ensure that the population is adequately looked after. These shortages are causing patient engagement to drop, as healthcare workers simply don’t have the capacity to make it a priority.
Solving Staffing Issues Through Conversational AI
In the competitive healthcare market, improving patient engagement is something that providers must achieve to stay ahead. One way to do it is through the integration of conversational AI solutions into healthcare operations. Conversational AI, in the form of a chatbot or voice assistant, can provide fast and accurate responses to patients on a number of topics, thus leading to higher levels of satisfaction, health literacy, and adherence to medical treatments, not to mention a reduced burden on personnel-strapped healthcare teams.
Conversational AI technology makes life easier for healthcare professionals by automating key tasks such as finding providers, appointment scheduling, administrative duties, and more. This allows highly skilled workers to focus on more complex and challenging issues that demand their expertise, resulting in higher employee satisfaction as well as greater operational efficiency.
Conversational AI is just one aspect of healthcare’s massive digital transformation. Its adoption, alongside other digital trends in healthcare such as telemedicine, the proliferation of AI-powered devices, and blockchain electronic records, is a sign that healthcare providers are letting go of outdated processes and putting more trust in technology to bring about better results, both for patients and healthcare systems themselves.
COVID-19 exposed several problems inherent in the global healthcare industry, undoubtedly causing the industry’s ineffective response, particularly during the earliest days. However, since the onset of the pandemic, the healthcare sector has leaned heavily on digital to right the ship.
In the healthcare industry, the role of digital transformation is to leverage innovation to optimize systems, streamline healthcare workflows, reduce human error, cut costs, and improve patient outcomes. When done right, all of these factors come together to improve patient engagement and health outcomes by a significant margin.
Managing staff churn and building up healthcare capacity are complex tasks that are long-term endeavors for healthcare systems. Digital transformation in the healthcare sector is, therefore, the ideal path to increase patient engagement and boost health outcomes, while additional resources can be devoted to solving these persistent issues.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some core digital trends in healthcare that are here to stay.
Conversational AI chatbots
It’s well-established that conversational AI is one of the leading digital trends in healthcare that has the potential to deliver many benefits for healthcare providers with relatively minor efforts and investments required.
What is conversational AI and how does it work?
Let’s start off with a simple, yet critical distinction: conversational AI is not a chatbot. The terms chatbot, virtual assistant, and conversational AI are often used interchangeably and while it's true they are all related, they very different from one another.
A chatbot is simply an application that automates chats. This means a user can ask the chatbot a question and receive an instant reply without the need for a human to intervene. However, chatbots aren’t required to be built using artificial intelligence. In fact, most of today's chatbots use scripted, pre-defined responses and rule-based programming to deliver simple answers to a specific set of questions. In other words, chatbots tend to be clunky and rarely fool anyone into thinking they're talking to an actual human.
Conversational AI, on the other hand, utilizes advanced automation, artificial intelligence, and natural language processing (NLP) to make machines capable of understanding and responding to human language, in the form of text or speech. Think of it as the brain behind the chat window or voice assistant — like a human brain, it has the flexibility, processing power, and learning ability to engage in complex conversation. In the most simplistic terms, the system works by taking the patient’s input and pulling the meaning out of the words that are used. Natural language generation is then used to come up with a response to the patient’s query.
While chatbots have been around for a while, advanced conversational AI systems are a relatively new phenomenon and prove to be much more effective at engaging in one-to-one dialogue with humans and generating accurate, tailored responses. This is quite the contrast to regular chatbots that merely pull responses from a pre-defined list, often causing more frustration and confusion rather than solving the problem at hand.
The Role of Conversational AI in Patient Engagement
Automated engagement between healthcare providers and patients via conversational AI delivers several benefits for patient engagement. The specific advantages depend on how healthcare systems deploy their conversational AI platforms, but often include:
- Enabling patients to schedule appointments immediately
- Enabling patients to ask questions to healthcare providers in real-time
- Enabling patients to order prescription refills for next-day delivery at home
These functions help with patient engagement by creating a more immediate, personalized experience. By having access to healthcare services at their fingertips, patients are more directly involved in their own treatment, thus building more substantial connections between patients and providers and greater health literacy.
Aside from clear benefits for patients, conversational AI platforms also offer value for healthcare systems by massively streamlining healthcare workflows, improving flexibility, and enabling healthcare professionals to offer patients self-service options. This saves time and money while taking some of the weight off of overextended healthcare workers.
Billing and Claims Processing
The last thing that patients want to be doing when they are supposed to be recovering is wasting time on the phone chasing information about billing or claims processes. It can take hours for patients to get meaningful answers, which not only frustrates them but also ties up employees on the other end who could be focusing on assisting patients with more time-sensitive queries.
Streamlining Patient Assistance with Conversational AI
By engaging with an intelligent virtual assistant, either through the web or over the phone, patients can divert their general queries (i.e., billing, claims, or any other admin query) and locate the information that they are looking for. This can all take place in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, thus immediately answering the patient’s query and boosting their satisfaction while simultaneously leaving your human staff to focus on handing more high-level queries.
Remote Patient Monitoring
Conversational AI can also be used to enhance remote patient monitoring, a subset of healthcare technology that is particularly helpful for patients with ongoing care needs, such as those with heart conditions or diabetes. These technologies have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, with the market for it expected to reach a value of $2936.38 million by 2025 and grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12.22% by 2025.
While remote patient monitoring devices keep track of key patient health indicators, conversational AI can be added into the mix by engaging patients in highly personalized and trusted conversations in the event of the device detecting an issue that requires immediate assistance. In more time-sensitive or critical situations, conversational AI platforms can offer digital triage services and trigger increased care for patients that need.
Customized Mobile Apps
Smartphone apps have taken over virtually every industry, and healthcare is no exception. There are over 6 billion smartphone users in the world today, and on average we spend around four hours per day using our connected devices.
In 2022, creating a smartphone app for your business is no longer a nice-to-have; it is something that all businesses, including healthcare organizations, must prioritize. Indeed, with the proliferation of smart healthcare technologies and further innovation in the healthcare space, apps are becoming the industry standard and something that patients expect. With the right features, such as an embedded conversational AI interface, a customized mobile app can easily become the main point of contact between patients and healthcare providers, helping to break down many of the existing barriers to effective communication.
Embracing Digital Trends in Healthcare
The healthcare sector was already well into its digital transformation prior to the pandemic, with the total global value for healthcare apps growing from $2.4 billion in 2017 to $40.05 billion by 2020. However, challenges such as social distancing, virtual consultations, and staff shortages have forced healthcare providers and other major players in the field to prioritize technological innovation and step up their digital makeovers. By 2028, experts predict that the market will be worth a whopping $125.3 billion.
This rush to innovate in healthcare led to the emergence of new and exciting developments, and there are endless examples of how new tech solutions and digital trends in healthcare are helping to transform patient outcomes. Case in point, there are currently over 400,000 healthcare apps available for download right now, and more than 200 are being added each day.
While conversational AI is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to digital transformation in healthcare, as a primary point of contact between patients and providers, it is one of the most crucial. As tech-led innovation continues in the healthcare space, conversational AI platforms are poised to expand beyond current applications such as answering frequently asked questions and scheduling appointments — claims processing, automated patient monitoring, and digital triage are just the tip of the iceberg.