Level up Your Engagement Strategy for 2021

The following is a guest article by Suzanne Cogan, Chief Commercial Officer at SPH Analytics.

Effective patient engagement is widely known to be tied to high quality care, outcomes, and cost savings. And while the healthcare industry continually stresses the importance of that connection, few stakeholders are truly extracting the greatest value from their strategies.

For example, consider the struggles of providers facing the challenges of engaging patients during the pandemic. In spite of massive efforts to get consumers to seek essential preventive care services, primary care visits decreased by 21.4% during the second quarter of 2020, in comparison to 2018 and 2019 averages. Health plans, meanwhile, have expressed frustration that their messaging around COVID testing and coverage is falling on deaf ears: Only 37% of consumers surveyed in May by SPH Analytics recalled that their health plan reached out to them with COVID-19 information.

The stakes could not be higher.

Patient engagement is intrinsically tied to reductions in adverse events and emergent care — especially among individuals over age 45. It is well accepted that men and women who take preventive steps around their health, such as engaging in routine screenings or obtaining a flu shot, achieve better health outcomes. But if healthcare providers aren’t actively engaged with their patients, dozens of impending problems could go undetected and grow worse.

Patient engagement is also increasingly tied to regulatory compliance and financial incentives. In May, for example, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) passed its Contract Year 2021 Medicare Advantage and Part D Final Rule, doubling the weight of patient experience measures in the calculation of Star Ratings for health plans.

As we approach an uncertain 2021, it’s clear healthcare organizations will need a new strategy for connecting with, and re-engaging, their patients.

Terms of Engagement

Patient engagement efforts often fall short because the idea of using digital communications to drive action is relatively new.

It wasn’t until 2010, when CMS published the Final Rule of its EHR Incentive Program, that the term “patient engagement” entered the healthcare lexicon. To comply with CMS’ meaningful use requirements, eligible providers had to prove that at least 5% of patients were actively viewing, downloading or transmitting health information during the reporting period.

But while this requirement simplified the idea of patient-provider communications, the emergence of portals didn’t supercharge engagement. Marketers may have latched on to the concept of “patient engagement” when rolling out communications applications, but many providers, patients, and even payers viewed the regular use of portals as cumbersome and unnecessary.

More than a decade later, patients are tech-savvier consumers, accustomed to using their digital devices for banking, shopping, and telehealth. Patient portals have also evolved, and more than 90 percent of healthcare organizations offer access to them.

Now that the technical tools for improved patient engagement have become more accessible and user-friendly, it is time for payer and provider engagement strategies to evolve and catch up. We still see, however, frequent instances of engagement tactics that are too broad:

  • blanket email marketing campaigns yielding low click-through rates
  • phone calls that go unanswered among the text-loving millennials, and texts that go unnoticed by baby boomers
  • educational and awareness campaigns that are informative but not personalized.

Personalizing Engagement

To deliver results, patient engagement strategies must be high touch and personalized. The only challenge, with the coronavirus still at large, is how to execute with limited budgets and time.

Here are five ideas that don’t exhaust financial or administrative resources:

  1. Use multiple survey tools. CAHPS survey data can show patient experience across various patient cohorts. But providers should also pay close attention to surveys of patients with negative experiences (e.g., challenges in making appointments, long wait times). In lieu of annual email or mail-based surveys, real-time digital surveys dispatched within a few hours or days of a patient visit may offer a more accurate reflection of patients’ experiences.
  2. Refine – and define – new cohorts. Most healthcare providers have a general idea of their patient demographics but don’t always have access to details, such as how many diabetics over 40 have undergone an eye exam within a six-month interval. In shaping future messaging that appeals to high risk patient cohorts, it’s essential to risk-stratify patients based on multiple criteria (e.g., frequency of visits, level of engagement or even high risk for COVID-19 complications). Extra legwork on the front end will pay dividends down the line.
  3. Align communication with preferences. We know that what works for one patient group won’t necessarily work for another. As we’ve seen over time, Medicare-age seniors are more likely to respond to written, mailed materials than a younger Medicaid population, which is more likely to engage with a text message. Also, timing is everything when trying to engage with a desired cohort. Case in point: A flu shot reminder delivered in a July email blast is less effective than the same reminder, sent in a short, text-based message in mid-September.
  4. Go broad, but sparingly. Broad-based messaging is still important in certain circumstances, where engagement is the end game (e.g., alerting patients to a new telehealth benefit), so long as it is not overused.
  5. Analyze and revise. Always conduct a post-mortem analysis of the effectiveness of your messaging strategy. Analyze your data and even gather feedback from patients using brief surveys and/or focus groups to understand what worked, and why: Did a text-based flu-shot reminder have higher-than-average open rates? Did patients ultimately engage in the desired way?

As we enter 2021, refining and elevating patient engagement tactics will be critical. By ensuring engagement strategies are more high-touch and personalized, health plans and providers will have a leg up on quality and performance in the new year.

About Suzanne Cogan

Suzanne E. Cogan is Chief Commercial Officer for SPH Analytics. Suzanne has more than two decades of leading healthcare technology and service companies to double and triple digit growth, and is well-regarded for driving exponential growth with rapidly-evolving products, while ensuring client satisfaction and success. SPH Analytics offers the leading healthcare measurement and analytics platform to understand and impact consumer experience and engagement.