Bridging the Gap: Communication Challenges Throughout the Patient Journey

The following is a guest article by John Zimmerer, Vice President of Vertical Marketing in Healthcare at Smart Communications

Healthcare shouldn’t feel like an uphill battle. But for many patients, the journey from scheduling an appointment to receiving care is riddled with unexpected roadblocks. Just last year, it was found that nearly two-thirds of adults say that coordinating and managing healthcare is overwhelming and time-consuming, and one in 10 say that finding the care they need is confusing and difficult to navigate. 

In pursuit of a better patient experience, most healthcare organizations have invested heavily in digital transformation, including the widespread adoption of Electronic Health Records (EHRs). However, the digitized experience still presents challenges in communication and processes, with four common pitfalls throughout the patient’s journey. 

Scheduling the Appointment  

Before seeing their provider, many patients find that scheduling the appointment alone can be a time-consuming hurdle, with an average of 26 days between scheduling and receiving care. A recent survey found 75% of patients prefer online scheduling options versus calling, as they are able to navigate their own schedule on their own terms. 

To meet this need, many providers offer online scheduling in one of three ways: a third-party plug-in to their EHR, the built-in capabilities of their EHR, or have built the functionality themselves. In some cases, providers have implemented more than one of these options. In other cases, the same solution provides different experiences on computers versus mobile devices. This brings the first pitfall: an inconsistent experience from an inconsistent tech stack, as patients and staff face a confusing array of different platforms throughout their scheduling process. 

In deploying online scheduling platforms, providers also risk a second pitfall: missing critical intake and care management opportunities. The scheduling process shouldn’t just include setting an appointment time; the patient should also be asked brief but informative questions about their reason for seeking that appointment such that their care pathway can be tailored to their needs. 

For example, a patient could be asked about their symptoms to determine whether they should have bloodwork done prior to seeing their provider or to refer them to a specialist rather than adding the extra step of seeing their primary care physician. A patient could also be offered a telehealth visit if an in-person appointment is deemed unnecessary by their provider. These care pathways can only be offered if the scheduling process goes beyond a simple time and date screen. 

During the Appointment

The appointment itself often revolves around information gathered before receiving care. Patients typically encounter multiple paper forms upon arrival, such as health history and treatment consent. Ideally, patients fill out these forms beforehand, however, most are forced to arrive early to avoid causing delays filling out their paperwork. 

This brings up the third pitfall of the digitized healthcare experience: strenuous forms limiting time for patients and doctors. While 85% percent of Pew survey respondents said at least some of their health care providers used electronic records, only 36% reported that all of their providers’ EHRs let them access their own records electronically, through a smartphone app or an online patient portal. In another study, only 11% of health consumers reported that all of their health practitioners used digital intake forms, yet 95% of respondents expect digital forms to be offered in the future, and almost half of respondents said they would choose one clinic over another if it offered digital forms.

Although digital forms have been introduced to cut down on time spent in the waiting room, they haven’t solved the issues associated with paper forms. Digital forms often lack personalization such as prefilled basic demographic information, costing even more time for the patient to complete. Patients would prefer to review and revise existing information, rather than entering the same information at each visit. Limiting the amount of information collected has the side benefit of improving data security.

Post Appointment

After the visit, clinicians transcribe notes about the encounter that are attached to the patient’s chart. However, according to a survey by the American Health Information Management Association Foundation, three in four Americans leave the doctor confused and dissatisfied with the level of Q&A they have with their doctor, confused about their health, and feeling a need to do more research due to lack of clear next steps.

This is because providers have fallen into the fourth pitfall of the digitized experience: struggles in streamlining the next steps for patients. Only 12% of the U.S. population is properly health literate, meaning only a low percentage can navigate the complexities of the healthcare system. Oftentimes, the transcribed notes and next steps for a patient are jumbled and confusing. Even with EHR integrations, after-visit summaries can be difficult to manage and understand through patient portals. Healthcare organizations need to go beyond just transcribing notes to their patients. They can deploy AI-assisted tools to help translate complex medical terminology and jargon into clear, concise language for the patient, then use tools like a customer communications management platform to automatically compose and send the information to patients over their preferred channel. This empowers clinicians to provide a clear diagnosis, treatment plan, and follow-up instructions in a way the patient can understand, ensuring better-informed healthcare decisions.

The digitization of healthcare, while promising efficiency, has created a communication chasm between providers and patients. EHR systems, often clunky and with varying interfaces, can make pre- and post-appointment tasks like filling out forms and understanding the next steps frustrating for patients. 

The shift to digital communication can leave patients feeling excluded or overwhelmed. This creates a double-edged sword: improved data collection on one hand, and potential communication breakdowns on the other. Striking a balance between digital efficiency and clear, accessible communication remains a key challenge in the evolving healthcare landscape. Providers and clinicians should begin to have a holistic view of the tools and resources available for improving patient communications, as digitization is not the silver bullet. 

About John Zimmerer

John Zimmerer is the Vice President of Vertical Marketing in Healthcare at Smart Communications, where he acts as a subject matter expert on the digital transformation of customer communications and data-centric, often form-based workflows. Most recently, John has been researching and writing about improving customer experience in healthcare and is regarded as a thought leader in this area. John has over 20 years of software product marketing experience. His areas of expertise include market research, analyst relations, public relations, and digital marketing.


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