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Improve Patient Engagement Through a Consumer Lens

Healthcare consumer and physicians in a hospital setting

As the saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” For that reason, patient engagement strategies must go beyond lip service to actually drive action to prove their worth. While the rise of healthcare consumerism has disrupted the healthcare industry, it also opens the door for hospitals and other healthcare providers to develop patient engagement programs that are more relevant — and, therefore, more effective at driving healthy behaviors through patient activation. The trick? Leverage the right technologies, healthcare consumer data and messaging to inspire active participation.

Mobile Is a Key to Improving Patient Engagement

Mobile technology has changed consumers’ relationship with healthcare in nearly all aspects of life. Consumers already use mobile devices when they’re relaxing, working, shopping — why not when they’re managing their health or searching for healthcare?

A recent study by the Society for Participatory Medicine found that 84 percent of healthcare consumers surveyed expressed interest in using easy-to-use mobile devices to track blood pressure, physical activity or other health-related factors to improve health management. The survey of 1000 consumers also found that:

  • 76 percent of those surveyed said they would use a clinically-accurate, user-friendly monitoring device.
  • 81 percent said they would be more likely to use a health-monitoring device on a doctor’s recommendation.
  • 57 percent said they would want to share health tracking device information with their provider.

This should come as no surprise given the popularity of wearable devices. Fitbit, for instance, sold 21.4 million of its connected health and fitness devices in 2015 according to a press release on the company’s financial performance. Add in sales of fitness trackers from Apple, Garmin, Jawbone and others, and it’s clear that a large number of healthcare consumers are inclined to take a more proactive approach to staying well. What’s more, Dr. Daniel Z. Sands, the co-founder of the Society for Participatory Medicine, notes, “The important findings from the survey show patients really want to partner with physicians.”

While healthcare consumers indicate a high level of interest in devices, not all data point to actual utilization of smartphone apps focused on health and fitness.  The c2b Consumer Diagnostic, a national study (n=4,038) of healthcare consumer attitudes and behaviors, found that only 82% of the general population age 18+ have downloaded and regularly use a health or fitness app.  A greater percentage of Millennials and Gen Xers indicate that they regularly use health or fitness apps, but it’s only a quarter of those populations.  Adoption still has a ways to go.

Of course, using devices to track health factors like heart rate and steps walked is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mobile devices. Many healthcare organizations are developing apps to drive active engagement among healthcare consumers. Done right, apps can help:

  • Empower healthcare consumers by providing disease-specific prevention or management tips, as well as access to personal medical records and physician advice.
  • Enhance patient communication by making it easy to connect with healthcare providers for quick answers to questions about care plans, make appointments, refill prescriptions or receive appointment reminders.
  • Support proactive self-management of chronic diseases with goal setting and tracking features, social sharing to allow users to tap into their family/friend network for support or receive text reminders about action plans from healthcare providers.

Moreover, when apps meet the needs of patients, they also help healthcare providers strengthen the doctor-patient relationship by offering added support without a significant impact on their day-to-day operational efficiency.  How do healthcare providers ensure the mobile tech they adopt meets healthcare consumers’ needs?

This willingness to partner with healthcare providers isn’t exclusive to fitness buffs and a sub-segment of mobile-obsessed Millennials. Many healthcare consumers with diabetes, for example, have been using connected, mobile health trackers for years. While the first insulin pump introduced in the late 1970s, which was about the size of a small microwave, wasn’t exactly convenient, more modern iterations of the device are the size of a pager, store huge amounts of data and connect via USB or wirelessly to facilitate easy sharing of information with healthcare providers. These mobile devices allow users to manage blood sugar levels more effectively with round-the-clock monitoring and automated insulin release. For many individuals with diabetes, insulin pumps represent freedom.

Dr. Joyce Lee, writing on the Prescribe Design blog, offers another example of healthcare collaboration: The Nightscout Project, a patient-centered participatory design endeavor that began in the Type 1 diabetes community.

Participatory Design Encourages Active Engagement

Like many current participatory design experiments, the Nightscout Project began as a personal project. Coder and father of a child with type 1 diabetes, John Costik wanted a way to see the real-time glucose readings of his son’s continuous glucose monitoring system. Costick developed code that enabled him to see the system data on his mobile phone and watch. Over time, he and a group of other patients and caregivers collaborated to make the open source code available online and established a private Facebook group to facilitate, which quickly gained 12,000 members in the first year.

The project is, as Dr. Lee notes, “meaningful and effective patient-driven participatory design for health: Patients and caregivers who are expert in living with a health condition, who understand what types of health problems need to be solved, and who creatively and collaboratively develop the solutions they need to solve those problems.”

She suggests that this is a crucial component of moving from passive patient engagement to active patient engagement. “Patients and caregivers are the end-user in healthcare, yet they are the voice that is almost always left out of the room,” she writes. She goes on to say that by cutting patients out of the conversation, healthcare providers risk developing solutions that “… will likely fail to gain traction and adoption.”

As many healthcare providers have already discovered, the “If you build it, they will come” mentality only works in the movies. Hot technology simply doesn’t drive long-term engagement and active participation. You have to make a meaningful connection with patients’ needs and expectations. As Kyra Bobinet, CEO of engagedIN and consulting faculty at Stanford School of Medicine, told the audience at last year’s HIMSS and Healthcare IT News Patient Engagement Summit, “Healthcare is so much more emotional than an iPhone.”

Rather than relying on the technology to ‘sell’ engagement, healthcare providers need to understand the motivations and emotions that will trigger participation. This isn’t a challenge unique to the healthcare industry. Consumers everywhere have become empowered thanks to digital technology, and retailers have been collecting ever more data to gain insights into consumer expectations and win the hearts of individuals who rate convenience over brand loyalty. Now that healthcare consumerism has taken hold, hospitals and other healthcare providers need to respond similarly, looking beyond demographics or a common diagnosis when segmenting their audience.

Targeted, effective patient engagement programs need to connect on the emotional level. Psychographic segmentation can help, giving healthcare providers insights into the unique differences among healthcare consumers based on their motivational factors, attitudes towards healthcare, communication preferences and more. These insights enable providers to pinpoint the type of messaging and engagement tools that will resonate most with the individuals healthcare providers wish to target.

The Self-Achiever psychographic segment, already highly self-motivated, may respond well to an engagement strategy that uses goals and rewards. Meanwhile, the Willful Endurers, who go to the doctor only as a last resort, may respond better to an engagement strategy that offers convenience that fits into their ‘live life the way you want’ attitude and facilitates communication with healthcare providers on their own terms.  Ultimately, the tools healthcare providers use to engage healthcare consumers will only be effective if they are designed for convenience and ease of use; they need to fit patients’ lifestyles and provide messages that reach them on an emotional level.

Healthcare consumerism may be driving an increase in the use of technology to support patient engagement, but in the absence of relevance, the level of engagement healthcare providers generate will be lackluster at best.

Psychographic Segmentation and its Practical Application in Patient Engagement and Behavior Change


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