August 2023.

Written by Mark Broughton, CPaaS Healthcare & Life Sciences Business Development Manager at Healthcare Communications, part of Webex by Cisco

 

In order to develop solutions that solve problems encountered by healthcare providers today, it is essential to gain a deeper understanding of those challenges, and where our capabilities intersect with our customers’ needs. We have pinpointed four significant challenges in the industry: Healthcare Cost, Health Equity, Patient Experience, and Workforce Burnout.

The rising cost of healthcare

Healthcare costs are on the rise due to various external factors (including government policies, inflation, and an ageing population) which often impose financial constraints on hospitals and clinics, limiting their ability to invest in necessary resources, equipment, and infrastructure. As the population expands and people live longer, so does their healthcare needs, and the types of care they need tend to be resource-intensive, leading to increased demand and costs.

The prevalence of chronic diseases and conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and obesity has been steadily rising. According to the CDC, 6/10 adults in the US have a chronic disease or condition. These often result in complications that necessitate ongoing treatment, potentially leading to long-term care or assisted living, which can create challenges in patient discharge and bed blocking issues. Managing persistent illnesses can require long-term medication and lifestyle modifications, and some may limit daily activities, requiring extra support services. This group are also likely to experience mental health issues, adding to the complexity and resource intensity of healthcare provision. The increased healthcare spend is often directed towards routine visits, outpatient treatments, prescriptions, and emergency care.

Economic pressures extend beyond healthcare providers, as rising energy prices and food insecurity can contribute to a population’s overall ill health. When coupled with staff shortages and high hospital bills, the pressure on the healthcare system intensifies. From day-to-day operational expenses such as heating and lighting to increased costs of goods and services, healthcare providers are compelled to become more creative and innovative in delivering greater efficiencies with fewer resources. Costing issues can be addressed by implementing cost-effective measures, such as preventative care programs and population health management initiatives, to reduce the need for expensive treatments.

Barriers to health equity

Health equity refers to the absence of unfair and avoidable differences in health status among different groups of people. It is achieved when everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential for health and well-being, regardless of their background or circumstances, and all individuals have equal access to services, including preventative care, treatment, and essential medications.

Unfortunately, there are various barriers that can hinder equal access to healthcare, particularly for minority populations, which include financial constraints, lack of health insurance, transportation issues, language barriers, and shortage of healthcare providers in certain areas. These challenges can disproportionately affect marginalised groups and result in disparities in healthcare access and outcomes.

One of the primary barriers to accessing healthcare is a lack of knowledge on how to navigate the healthcare system or access available support, particularly for people with disabilities, individuals from disadvantaged groups, residents of rural areas, and those with lower incomes. Structural barriers related to socio-economic status, such as lack of insurance, transportation options, childcare, or the ability to take time off work, can make it difficult for individuals to seek medical care. Additionally, cultural and language differences between patients and providers can impact their interactions and the quality of care provided.

To address these disparities, efforts should focus on expanding access to healthcare services in underserved areas. The establishment of community health centers, mobile healthcare units, and telemedicine initiatives can help make healthcare services can help those who face barriers related to distance, transportation, or limited availability of local facilities. By implementing these strategies, we can work towards ensuring that everyone has equal opportunities for good health.

The importance of patient experience

Patient experience encompasses the entire range of interactions that patients have with the healthcare system, including their interactions with health plans, doctors, nurses, and staff in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. It goes beyond a single encounter and includes factors such as convenience, wait times, transparency, engagement, and feeling heard, understood and involved in the care process.

Covid has left healthcare systems grappling with a backlog of care, as well as new patients who postponed seeking help during the pandemic and are now presenting with more complex conditions, which is resulting in patients being left waiting without any clear information. Accessibility is another crucial aspect of patient experience, including difficulty arranging and attending appointments. Convenience is also essential, as modern patients often expect to avoid long wait times on the phone by instead booking appointments digitally. Solutions with built in accessibility features that enable instant digital communication, scheduling and access to medical records play a significant role in keeping patients informed and satisfied.

Effective communication between providers and patients is associated with improved patient adherence to medical advice, better clinical outcomes, enhanced patient safety practices, and reduced utilization of unnecessary healthcare services. Recognising the importance of patient experience, healthcare providers are increasingly focusing on improving the various aspects mentioned earlier to ensure patients feel valued, engaged, and well-cared for throughout their healthcare journey. By prioritising patient-centered care and leveraging technology, providers can work towards delivering positive and satisfying experiences for their patients.

A burnt out workforce

Workforce burnout is a pervasive issue in the healthcare industry, affecting professionals across various disciplines, including doctors, nurses, technicians, support and admin staff with chronic physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion resulting from prolonged and excessive stress. Even before the pandemic, healthcare worker burnout was a prevalent issue, and the crisis has brought this problem to the forefront by exacerbating existing challenges such as excessive work pressures and staffing shortages, as well as financial constraints from rising healthcare costs.

Addressing the well-being of healthcare workers involves recognizing and valuing their contributions across all areas of the healthcare system. Efforts should focus on providing staff with systems that reduce manual administrative burdens, by examining existing processes, identifying inefficiencies, and redesigning them to streamline operations. Automating processes can free up staff from repetitive tasks, and delivering patient-facing solutions can empower them to become more self-sufficient. When patients have access to systems that help them manage their conditions, appointments, and care plans, the admin burden is reduced which in turn creates more capacity for staff to focus on those with greater needs.

By implementing strategies to reduce administrative burdens, leveraging technology, and empowering patients, healthcare organisations can alleviate the workload on healthcare personnel and create a more sustainable and supportive work environment. Prioritizing the well-being of the workforce is crucial to ensuring the delivery of high-quality services and maintaining a healthy healthcare system.

Activating patients to manage their own care

Patient activation describes how individuals manage their own health and care through their knowledge, skills, and confidence. As the cost of healthcare continues to rise, there needs to be a shift from an activity-driven care model to an outcome-based approach. Patient activation plays a key role in this shift, as research has consistently shown that it is associated with positive health behaviors, improved clinical outcomes, lower costs, and better experiences.

Patients with high levels of activation are involved in maintaining their health and managing chronic conditions, and are more likely to access their health records, adhere to care plans, and attend appointments. Engaged patients also tend to have higher satisfaction with their providers. Unfortunately, it is estimated that 25% to 40% of patients have low levels of activation and are less likely to take an active role in maintaining their health. They may struggle to seek help, follow professional advice, manage and understand their chronic conditions, and are at a higher risk of hospital readmissions post-discharge.

By understanding a patient’s activation level, healthcare providers can plan and deliver care appropriately, leading to improved well-being and reduced instances of unplanned or emergency care. The Patient Activation Measure (PAM) is a validated survey consisting of 13 questions designed to assess a person’s knowledge, skills, and confidence in managing their well-being. Once a patient’s activation level is understood, technology can be leveraged to engage with patients in a personalised manner.

For highly activated patients, mobile devices can empower them to take more control over their healthcare through conversations driven by asynchronous messaging channels, utilizing natural language processing (NLP) and natural language understanding (NLU) capabilities to deliver personalised experiences. On the other hand, patients with low activation levels may benefit from simple SMS appointment reminders, medication adherence notifications, and access to resources and information to support their condition management, encouraging them to learn more about their health and gradually increase their activation levels.

Digital transformation in healthcare is essential for providing a patient-centric experience, improving efficiencies, reducing costs, and delivering better outcomes. Incorporating patient activation methods and leveraging tech can also enhance engagement and optimise resource utilization. As healthcare providers continue to embrace digital solutions and build digital relationships with patients, we will see significant advancements and improvements in the healthcare industry as a whole.