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A CIO’s Perspective: The Power of the Omnichannel Patient Experience


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Zach Hodges

CIO, Valley Family Health Care

As technology in healthcare has evolved, so has the patient experience. What was once a word-of-mouth recommendation from a friend or family member has become a Google review. Virtual visits have joined in-person ones. And today’s patients are growing more comfortable communicating electronically with their healthcare providers.

In my 10+ years in community-centered healthcare, the transformation of patient experiences has been dizzying. I was drawn to Valley Family Health Care because they provided care for a rural, underserved community, affordably and with compassion. I wanted to provide this community of patients and providers the communication experiences they wanted.

Our patients – and patients everywhere – demand a seamless experience across channels. This means that they want to schedule appointments online, have telehealth appointments, see their lab results in a portal, access their providers on-demand, pay bills electronically, chat online, and come into an office for a good, old-fashioned, face-to-face visit.  

In short, they want an “omnichannel patient experience.”

Omnichannel Experiences Make Healthier Patients

As CIO, I’m mired in the network, software, and applications that make the healthcare omnichannel experience work. But when I take a step back to see how our patients can interact with us using these tools, I marvel at the outcomes and the possibilities. 

Here are a few examples of what better patient engagement looks like when we use multiple communication channels:

Chat and text

Imagine having a chat conversation with a bot that’s so intelligent and emotionally aware, that you thought you were chatting with a human. 

Using AI, the software retrieves patient data and uses it to have better-informed, even empathetic conversations with patients, boosting patient engagement and satisfaction while reducing staff time spent on these interactions. 

Patients schedule appointments, discuss expectations, and receive reminders of upcoming appointments, all with an AI-driven chatbot. We’ve seen our no-show rates drop from 24% to 14%, just by sending a quick chat reminder of upcoming appointments. 

Remote patient monitoring (RPM) 

If a provider sees a patient once a year, their view of that patient’s health is limited to a moment in time. RPM tools collect vital patient data continuously, data that doctors can access between appointments for a more holistic view of their patient’s health. With RPM, the doctor can see, for example, that the patient is experiencing a period of higher blood pressure or excessive weight loss. The doctor can explore what’s happening, reach out to the patient, and ensure better health all year long.  

Medication adherence

Similar to appointment reminders, we send patients text- and chat-based medication reminders – helping them manage multiple medications and reminding them when to refill. Especially for chronically ill patients, these reminders have been instrumental in keeping patients on track with their own care. 

On-demand appointments

Scheduling isn’t always possible. Patients who need immediate medical or mental health care can book on-demand appointments, which then occur immediately via video.

A new… kitchen?

Our surveys pointed to a dangerous knowledge gap among our diabetes patients. In addition to RPM for these patients, Valley Family Health Care created a commercial kitchen, hired a certified nutritionist, and organized group classes (in person and online) to teach patients how to make simple changes in their diets. Patients learned, lost weight, got off medication, and were equipped with the nutrition knowledge needed to make impactful, long-term changes. 

Even 911

For this life-and-death healthcare channel, first responders worldwide are shaving urgent minutes off emergency care. Intelligent algorithms use past geographic and diagnostic data to predict when, and from where, the next emergency call will take place. They pre-position correctly-equipped ambulances to respond, so when that call comes, they’re ready.

People in need of healthcare reach out to us in so many ways. It’s up to us to provide well-functioning, seamless communication across all channels. We’re getting better, software improves every day, and patients are happier and healthier.

Navigating Data Complexity

The promise of a truly seamless omnichannel experience for patients fills me with hope, yet at times seems perpetually out of reach. From my perspective within this single rural organization, providing a truly seamless experience means navigating a complex labyrinth of obstacles – and we’re still piecing it together.

We’ve all experienced bumps in the road: one healthcare platform to schedule the appointment, another to ensure a referral transfers properly, a third for the test results, and a fourth to pay the bill. 

I’ll go on. The portal allows for attachments, but the chat function doesn’t. Some platforms offer bilateral communication, others just one-way. Either way, they don’t always fill in each others’ data gaps, so the intelligence gained by one platform lives only in that one platform. 

What’s more, with greater data complexity comes security challenges. Some platforms share your information readily, but potentially create HIPAA privacy violations, while others hold information close, creating holes in the holistic patient view. 

The journey to understanding the whole patient has interoperability and security potholes along the way, for provider and patient alike.

As I continue to navigate the challenges of pulling software, hardware, platforms, and people together securely, I look forward to the promise tech offers to our patients’ choices and care, and to the efficiencies it offers our staff and practitioners.

While the Plane is Flying: Advice from a CIO

We’re at a watershed moment in healthcare. Companies are working to create interfaces to each other’s data to solve the interoperability problem. The network technology supporting multiple platforms that store, analyze, and communicate patient data has also improved. Network switches and routers are faster, and optical synchronous fiber can offer nearly unlimited bandwidth. 

We’re building this omnichannel airplane, but it’s already flying! Let’s make sure it stays aloft and finds new heights. Here are a few things we’re doing at Valley Family Health Care to keep that plane in the sky:

1. Survey

Building the right omnichannel experience for patients and practitioners means understanding what they want, and you’ll never know until you ask. And read between the lines – our diabetic patients didn’t exactly ask for cooking classes, but it was clear they needed the knowledge.

2. Invest in people

Investing time in addressing current data vulnerabilities and pitfalls in data collection and storage can be the key to unlocking its full potential. But, we won’t be able to extract value from data if the data itself is inaccurate. Even at Valley Family Health Care, as small as we are, we depend on a dedicated team of data analysts. This team maintains data integrity and accuracy across our systems so we can provide the best possible care. Increasing patients’ online access to you also means that technology will, from time to time, simply fail. When a Zoom update doesn’t work for everyone, our IT team jumps in to ensure that patient care continues. Finally, data security requires specialized compliance knowledge and a tight cycle of ensuring integrity and conducting audits. Don’t skimp.

3. Read contracts closely

Because we’re liable for our vendors’ actions, make sure you understand exactly how vendors intend to use your patients’ data. Read the fine print and challenge contract terms that make you uneasy.

4. Update that network!

As an industry, we’ve spent the last few years first converting paper to electronic health records, and then racing to get those records into the cloud (or often, multiple clouds). As more and more data leads to increased machine learning, leading to increased AI-driven accuracy, leading to more online healthcare participation…we’re going to see a lot more traffic on our networks. Increasing the bandwidth of public networking connections is a good first step. Further, establishing private connections to your cloud service providers will increase security, decrease latency, and save money over the longer term. We can also introduce AI within our networks’ functionality itself. For example, the right SD-WAN solution can use AIOps to find root causes and diagnose network issues – so your IT team can stop firefighting when outages occur.

5. Know your community’s connections

It’s not just about our own networks. In Valley Family Health Care’s rural community, we have patients without adequate Internet access. We can help by pointing them to federal programs that offer free or reduced-cost Internet service and devices. The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) and Lifeline are two examples. Eligible families who pair their benefits with one of the partnered internet providers can receive high-speed internet at no cost.

It’s clear that Valley Family Health Care’s patients and staff have benefitted from taking an omnichannel approach to patient care. By prioritizing data integrity, network optimization, and personalizing the patient experience to their preferred channels, Valley Family Health Care has been able to boost patient satisfaction, improve outcomes, and take the administrative load off of staff. 

And we’re just beginning. I’m confident that data-driven technologies will continue to lead to a healthier future for all of us. 

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