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Making meaningful use of patient-friendly technology

By Sabriya Rice
Posted: February 28, 2014 - 1:30 pm ET

Digital tools such as iPads, mobile applications, online portals and text messaging are gaining popularity in hospitals, as many seek to better engage patients, improve outcomes and reduce healthcare costs. Although these technologies are steadily making their way into clinical practice, industry leaders say there is still a long road ahead to fully integrate digital technology with individualized patient care.

“We have to have this in healthcare … because the new definition of quality is convenience,” said Aetna president Mark Bertolini, during his keynote address at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) annual meeting this week in Orlando. To involve patients and make information relevant to them, healthcare providers need to keep communication simple and “put it in the palms of their hand,” he said.

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In a Tuesday morning HIMSS session, Danville, Pa.-based Geisinger Health System described several digital technologies that have successfully engaged its patients. For example, the system's pharmacy used an online patient portal to send a questionnaire about medications and learned that nearly a quarter of survey respondents had either stopped taking medications still listed on their records, or had started taking medications that had not yet been added to their file.

Additionally, when Geisinger's offices began texting patients with reminders about upcoming appointments, the effort saved the hospital system more than $50,000 in no-show expenses. And, patients who participated in a Geisinger weight loss program using text messaging showed more weight-loss success than those who did not participate.

“For the patient to be active in their health, they need stuff outside of the exam room,” said session host, Chanin Wendling, director of the e-health for Geisinger, in an interview with Modern Healthcare. Despite the system's successes however, she says “we've barely scratched the surface.”

Resources are readily available for consumers in the fitness and diet retail space, according to Wendling, but there is still a void in digital opportunities that help patients manage chronic diseases. When patients comply and behaviors change, both they and their providers benefit, “so you want to try and give them the tools,” she said.

More than 20 other HIMSS sessions touched on patient engagement, digital or otherwise, during the week-long conference. The topic has become so popular that HIMSS set up a new, interactive demonstration booth on the exhibition floor this year, to meet attendees' requests for information on how to creatively implement health system technologies that could boost efficiency and improve care.

GetWellNetwork was one of more than 30 exhibiting vendors who see the growing interest in patient engagement as a business opportunity. The company's new chief information officer, David Muntz, was previously the principal deputy director of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC).

“The nice thing about the technology that we have is that it helps hardwire the patient journey, and it reminds them at appropriate times—using technology that is very familiar, whether its cell phones, or iPads or terminals—what it is that a patient needs to do,” Muntz said in an interview. “If you get patients actively involved in their care, then they have significantly better outcomes and they get to a healthy state much more quickly.” He said that 200 hospital systems are currently using the GetWellNetwork resources.

In a Monday HIMSS session, nurses with the pediatric asthma program of Banner Health in Arizona outlined how they worked with GetWellNetwork to create an interactive educational program designed to look at asthma care through the eyes of a child. They said the program helped reduce their patients' lengths of stay.

One of the prominent goals of the federal government's electronic health record incentive, or meaningful-use program is this engagement of patients and their families in their health care. The changes are not easy to implement, and this week nearly 50 of the largest and most influential healthcare groups in the U.S. requested more time and flexibility to meet pending requirements.

As physicians and hospitals try to meet these requirements, Wendling said providers should avoid implementing a technology just because it worked somewhere else—deciding what to choose should not follow a one-size-fits-all paradigm. “You have to decide where you are going to innovate. Think about your organization and what makes sense for you,” Wendling said at HIMSS. No one has ever tried many of the projects she's undertaken, she said, so her strategy has been to start small and introduce new things slowly, expanding them later if they work. “It's a journey, not a big bang,” Wendling said.

Follow Sabriya Rice on Twitter: @MHSRice

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