Dear Digital Healthcare: Let’s Do Better

Digital transformation has increased healthcare access, but quality and consistency are lagging behind. A human touch – and some innovative thinking – can get us where we need to be.

Michael Sheeley is the Co-founder and CEO of Nurse-1-1, a HIPAA-compliant live chat platform that connects patients with a nationwide network of nearly 3,000 NPs, RNs, PAs, and MDs. Previously he was the Co-founder and COO of RunKeeper, a mobile health and fitness company that was acquired by ASICS. This article was originally published in HIT Consultant on July 27, 2022.

We weren’t prepared. But can you blame us?

The healthcare industry has gone digital faster than anyone could’ve expected. Digital health options like telemedicine and online pharmacies existed before the pandemic. At some point, they would’ve naturally risen to prominence. COVID-19 forced us to stuff a decades-long transformation into two years.

A recent report from McKinsey & Company shows that by mid-2021, telehealth visits were 38 times more common than before the pandemic. Telemedicine and online pharma have their merits. Digital options are known to increase healthcare access and convenience for patients. 

Flexibility is great. Quality and consistency of care are just as important. The same McKinsey report shows that only 32% of physicians – the very people administering care online – feel that telehealth can improve the patient experience. 

Other industries like banking and retail can get away with more automation and fewer humans. Healthcare is different. Patients need human expertise, empathy, and guidance when navigating prescriptions to medication, at-home tests, and other remote treatments that affect their health. Each healthcare transaction involves a complex web of players. Patients need a vote of confidence from someone they trust. 

Our industry’s digital alternatives have become too transactional and too impersonal. We shouldn’t rely only on clicking buttons, chatting with bots, and uploading photos (without any true human interactions) when making important, personal decisions about our health. It’s time to re-inject some trust, expertise, and human touch into digital healthcare.

We can do better. It’s no easy task, but the healthcare industry needs to make some changes to keep up with the digital overhaul that’s only going to continue:

The healthcare industry has to adapt differently than other industries.

Organizations in every industry had to expand their digital offerings because of the pandemic. Many of these outcomes have been positive. Lots of people prefer depositing a check from their mobile phone, taking a workout class on an app instead of hitting the gym, and skipping the line at the DMV with online paperwork.

Digital health platforms can lean on similar solutions to automate some outdated processes. A Zoom call can replace an in-person visit for a common cold. Refilling a prescription online can save a trip to the pharmacy.

Sometimes it’s not so easy. Every healthcare transaction includes significantly more stakeholders than most industries. Even something as routine as an at-home test includes touchpoints with a primary care physician, insurance agent, pharmacy, testing clinic, specialists, and support staff. 

Perhaps a patient doesn’t understand how to take their medication or administer an at-home test. Rather than set up another telemedicine visit, they are more likely to skip treatment altogether. Non-adherence to medications is a huge issue. It costs the healthcare system $300 billion annually, according to Healthcare Finance Report – and that number is set to spike with the increase in remote care. Less than 30% of prescriptions are taken properly, per the report.

An increase in digital health has taken away the small interactions that build trust with patients. We’ve lost the bit of advice that a pharmacist gives you at the counter or the reassuring smile from a nurse practitioner during a checkup.

Healthcare is personal. Sometimes, it’s confusing. We can’t just copy the digital transformation trends of other industries and expect to provide a compassionate, consistent standard of care. 

Misinformation and patient dropoff are too common.

When I log onto my provider’s digital health platform, the Google search bar is never far away. As we shift to online options, it can be tempting for patients to try to do their own research. This pushes them further from the available options inside their network.

We also can’t escape data tracking across platforms. If I Google “Continuous Glucose Monitoring” on my computer, it’s likely that ads for glucose monitoring technology will start popping up on my Facebook and Instagram. I don’t know how reliable these ads and services are, or their motivation and incentive to get me to click. It’s information overload, and much more confusing than guidance from a professional.

In addition to a decrease in reliability, we’ve also lost some continuity in the digital health system. Pre-pandemic, many patients would go straight to the pharmacy to fill prescriptions after a doctor’s visit. 

The online nature of digital offerings increases the chance for dropoff between these steps.  Instead of just showing up, I might have to shift from my provider’s platform to an online pharma site, with a different login. There’s less accountability involved. If I do get my prescription, I didn’t have that key interaction at the pharmacy counter to answer my last minute questions and thus help influence my commitment to the treatment.

How can the healthcare industry do better?

The healthcare industry isn’t too far gone. Keeping up with the explosive growth of digital health was always going to be tough. Some collaboration and innovation will help us adapt:

Provide connections across platforms and services.

Healthcare leaders have been talking about interoperability for a decade. A completely connected network of healthcare data is a tall order, so let’s start smaller.

Perhaps we can learn from the “Google search and Instagram ad” example. Health platforms can have the same connectivity. If I get a prescription on a telemedicine service, I should be influenced to fill that prescription when I arrive at an online pharmacy site. We need to reduce the potential for dropoff by clearly outlining the right steps for patients.

Create an industry standard for digital care.

There’s lots of information out there. Patients shouldn’t have to discern the validity of a source on their own.

I envision some sort of certification or organization that lets patients know which platforms are providing them valid, independent sources of information. Maybe it’s as simple as a professional cohort of trusted brands. We should be able to spot a logo on a digital health platform and know immediately what type of guidance we’re getting.

Leverage the power of nurses for real-time communication.

Nursing has been the most trusted profession for 20 years running, according to Gallup. 

Many patient support specialists at pharmaceutical companies use nurse hotlines and other 3rd party services. They analyze patient data, determine patients at risk of non-adherence, and reach out for support with their prescriptions. These nurses are extremely effective – but only when they’re able to connect with the patient. Phone tag and missed calls are common.

There’s a better way to leverage the expertise of nurses. Embedding a nurse chat tool within digital health platforms allows for real-time communication. Rather than waiting for a phone call, patients can interact with a nurse while questions are fresh in the patient’s minds. It also ensures you’re catching the patient at their moment of highest intent (i.e. when they’re already thinking about their treatment) – rather than calling them later on in the middle of a work day or family dinner.

Keep adapting.

Healthcare contains more complexity – and requires more compassion – than just about any industry. Combining human expertise with rapid digital transformation doesn’t always feel natural. We’re not where we need to be, but a few steps towards collaboration and standardization will increase the quality and consistency of care for patients everywhere.