The Top 6 Healthcare Technologies That Are Redefining Access to Care
The future of healthcare upon us, with groundbreaking AI technology fueling advances in robotics, nanotechnology, and more, ushering in a new era of more accurate diagnoses and higher quality care.
Technology isn't only shaping what's possible in medical treatments—it's redefining access to care and the patient experience. Consumers today have sky-high expectations from all of the services they use, driven largely by the ease and convenience of online shopping. As a result, patients increasingly expect their healthcare interactions to be on par with their shopping experiences, bringing about a massive change industry.
To meet rising demand, many technology companies are developing sophisticated solutions focused on patient experience that are setting a new standard for engagement and access to services.
How Do We Define Access to Care?
According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, access to care is defined as having "the timely use of personal health services to achieve the best health outcomes". It can be thought of as the ease with which an individual can obtain necessary medical services.
The Five Pillars of Access to Care (The 5 A’s)
- Approachability: This refers to a person’s ability to identify that a health service they require exists and can be obtained.
- Acceptability: Cultural and social factors determine how likely a patient is to accept various health services. For example, in a culture where physical contact between unmarried men and women is taboo, women might be less likely to engage with services if the majority of healthcare professionals are men.
- Availability: This refers to whether healthcare services can be accessed and in a timely manner and is determined by factors like availability of transportation, occupational flexibility, and distribution of services across a geographic location.
- Affordability: Do individuals have the financial resources and the time to receive treatment? Factors like employment status and social isolation (lack of a support network) can restrict a person’s ability to pay for the care they need.
- Appropriateness: This refers to the services that are provided (are they a good fit for the population's health needs?), timeliness (can people access services before health outcomes worsen?), and the quality and effectiveness of services.
While these definitions may be fairly simple, the reality often tells a vastly more complicated story, as one’s access to care is influenced by a variety of different factors including race, socioeconomic status, gender, and more.
The Complexities of Access to Care
Imagine a scenario where a hospital has an MRI machine, PET scanner, CT scanner, and offers patients a straightforward route to book appointments through physician referrals. In this situation, patients technically have access to services — it’s the opportunity part of this equation where complexities arise, as several social, cultural, financial, and organizational barriers may limit the utilization of available services in different ways.
Let’s say a patient is experiencing frequent migraines and consults with their primary care physician, who provides them with a referral for a CT scan. However, the patient’s insurance plan does not cover CT scans and they do not have the available funds to cover the cost out of pocket. This example is illustrative of a financial barrier and is a common reason for individuals being unable to access a medical treatment or service that they need.
Alternatively, some patients may experience cultural and social barriers to accessing care, often due to mistrust in healthcare professionals or the system at large. As an example of this phenomenon, a recent study into COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy found that individuals belonging to ethnic minority groups were more likely to be hesitant towards getting the vaccine, when compared with the rest of the population. The effect was particularly pronounced for Black respondents, many of whom cited concerns about the long-term health effects of the COVID-19 jab and a lack of trust in vaccines in general.
In addition, there are organizational barriers to consider, referring to the many processes, procedures, or informal ways of doing things that limit access to care. For example, long waiting lists, complex appointment referral systems, lack of robust follow-up processes, lack of multi-language support for non-native speaking patients, poorly designed Electronic Health Records (EHRs), and complex patient portals are frequently cited as factors that prevent individuals from engaging with the healthcare system and receiving the care they need.
While all barriers to care represent opportunities for innovation and improvement, many forward-thinking technology companies are focusing their efforts on providing solutions to overcome organizational barriers. Let's take a look at six healthcare technologies that are redefining the patient experience and access to care.
6 Healthcare Technologies That Are Redefining Access to Care
1. Conversational AI
More and more healthcare organizations are investing in advanced conversational AI platforms that promise to boost the patient experience and streamline organizational efficiency. But what exactly is conversational AI in the context of healthcare? And what can it do?
Essentially, conversational AI is an advanced communications platform built on a foundation of machine learning, Natural Language Processing (NLP), and neural networks that make machines capable of understanding and responding to natural human speech, via voice or text. Conversational AI platforms can harness data from healthcare organizations, patients, and various other sources to become better at the services they offer.
In contrast, traditional chatbots have a narrow scope and really on rigid intent-based flows, causing them to stumble when they are asked a question they do not have an answer for, or even if the question is worded slightly differently than what they were trained with. On the other hand, conversational AI solutions can use language in much the same way humans do, with an understanding of the particular context, nuances, dialects and a working memory of the conversation. Advanced systems are intertwined with other key applications, allowing them to access all the information needed to provide effective and efficient responses, all without the need for human intervention.
Conversational AI is primed to create a massive impact in the healthcare industry, and in many places, it's already doing just that. When implemented in the right way, conversational AI improves patient engagement and opens new avenues for access, while boosting operational efficiencies, and healthcare outcomes.
Here are some key use cases for conversational AI in healthcare:
- Appointment scheduling: Access to care may be limited if the only way to book an appointment is through a phone call, as some patients might struggle due to a language barrier, social anxiety, or other factors. Conversational AI solves this problem by making it easy to find a provider and book an appointment online, through text or voice.
- Appointment reminders: An AI-powered virtual assistant can issue reminders to patients directly through SMS or via social channels, so that there are less no-shows.
- Electronic prescribing: Patients can use an advanced chatbot to request a refill or reauthorization of a prescription.
- Communicating with healthcare professionals: The lack of opportunity to converse with healthcare professionals presents significant barrier to accessing care. Conversational AI allows patients to ask critical questions that physicians can respond to electronically or mark to be addressed in the next appointment.
- Distributing public health information: A conversational AI platform helps ensure the health and safety of communities by offering quick and easy access to key information from verified sources, taking significant pressure off of healthcare professionals who can focus on more critical activities.
2. Curbside or Virtual Waiting Rooms
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for contactless and socially distanced healthcare services wherever possible. Many healthcare facilities have adapted by offering alternatives like curbside waiting rooms, which help limit unnecessary patient-to-patient or patient-to-staff contact by ensuring all paperwork is completed online and patients only enter the facility when it is their turn. While the need for curbside waiting rooms has waned as vaccines have become widely available, they are still a good tool for boosting access to care. For example, patients with suppressed immune systems may still benefit from options like this in the future.
Virtual waiting rooms for online appointments also boost access to care by providing more guidance for necessary actions patients need to take once the appointment is done. For example, a virtual waiting room system can automatically schedule a follow-up appointment if one is required or send any prescriptions that must be filled.
3. Remote Monitoring Devices
Remote monitoring devices allow physicians to keep closer track of a patient's condition, allowing for more dynamic treatment plans. For example, devices like pulse oximeters, wireless scales, insulin readers, and more can send data electronically to a central system that physicians can review.
Remote monitoring devices boost access to care by encouraging patients to become more actively engaged with their treatment plans. Too often, patients simply show up to appointments and have little understanding of medical terminology or what the numbers and graphs in front of them actually mean. This changes with remote monitoring devices that help establish a stronger link between the patient and the healthcare provider.
4. Patient Portals
Most healthcare systems today leverage patient portals to make life easier for patients and providers alike. Patient portals dramatically improve access to care by making it painless for patients to obtain their health records, book appointments, view their discharge summaries, find answers to their questions, and more. They’re also useful in reducing the amount of time-consuming and often redundant paperwork that must be completed.
Healthcare facilities using antiquated patient portals should consider upgrading, to maximize the potential for next-level patient engagement. If the portal is outdated or difficult to use, patients may avoid it in favor of calling the facility, overburdening support center teams and causing both patient and employee satisfaction to plummet.
5. Price Transparency Tools
Financial factors are often significant barriers when it comes to access to care. But while the high cost of medical services is difficult to change, what can be improved is how these costs are communicated using price transparency tools. For example, with such a solution, patients could access a list of prices for elective or non-emergency services organized by treatment type, so there is no confusion or guessing.
A conversational AI solution can further improve patient engagement here by asking patients relevant questions about the kinds of services they're interested in and communicating the costs up front.
6. Interactive Engagement Tools
While conversational AI solutions help patients seamlessly interact with healthcare providers, they are not the only interactive engagement tools out there.
There are a number of creative solutions that help improve the experiences of people receiving inpatient care, such as TVs with on-demand videos of therapy dogs, livestreams of religious services, videos of yoga positions that patients can do in bed, and more.
For example, the Phoenix Children's Hospital installed 200 tablets for use in patient rooms that offer provide personalized, interactive information about treatment plans. These digitized patient journey boards outline key discharge instructions for families before they take their child home, to ensure optimal post-treatment outcomes.
The Future of Healthcare Access
Engaging with healthcare services can often be a confusing and anxiety-inducing experience for patients. When you add in all the complexities associated with access to care, it's easy to see how some patients feel disengaged, discouraged, and un-empowered. Luckily, technology has the power to mitigate those negative emotions, not with flashy UIs, but with the utility they provide to patients.
Conversational AI platforms help patients take control of their health by providing more agency. With conversational AI, patients no longer have to engage with healthcare systems on the provider's schedule. Rather, they can access services like appointment scheduling and electronic prescriptions 24/7 through their preferred channels. In addition, they can learn more about the services available to them, what they mean, and how to access them, all from the comfort of their own home, without even dialing a number.
As technology continues to advance, the prospect of what will be available in the future becomes even more exciting. To get there, healthcare organizations need to start today, by investing in the best available technologies to improve the patient experience.