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High-tech & high-touch: The role of technology and empathy in advancing health equity

If you can achieve the right mix of high-tech, high-touch options, you’ve hit the sweet spot for improving equity and accessibility, patient engagement, health outcomes, loyalty, and profitability

Maine currently has the oldest state population in America. For MaineHealth, the state’s largest integrated health system, that poses a unique challenge: As healthcare evolves, how do you ensure everyone has access to the right resources? How do you work toward a better patient experience that doesn’t leave anyone behind?

The short answer is technology. But the long answer, which I was inspired to write about after hosting an event on modernizing the healthcare experience, is about using technology thoughtfully and with empathy.

What is health equity?

In healthcare, equity means serving people logistically, clinically, emotionally and financially—no matter who they are.

Many underserved patient populations have delayed or even avoided care due to mistrust toward the system. Recently, we’ve seen mistrust impact the national Covid-19 vaccination rates: data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals that Blacks and Latinos are less likely to be vaccinated than people in other racial or ethnic minority groups. Worse, Black and Latino people are more likely to get seriously ill and die from Covid-19.

Socioeconomic status, location, gender, race, religion, ethnicity, age or sexual orientation should not be a reason that patients do not get the care they need when they need it. The goal is for providers and payers to treat underserved populations with empathy while deploying solutions that reflect their priorities.

This is where technology comes in. When implemented the right way, it gives healthcare organizations the ability to tailor the patient experience at tremendous scale. For example, in Maine, patients with access to modern technology are very satisfied with telehealth and other virtual services; but in a rural state, the key is expanding access to those without it. In a case like this, finding great partners was crucial for MaineHealth. For example, the National Digital Equity Center’s “Maine Digital Inclusion Initiative” promotes inclusion for residents by expanding no- or low-cost digital literacy services to traditionally underserved populations, helping them master technology that leads to financial stability and improved health.

Using healthcare technology wisely

As we look to the future, we’re seeing some promising signs. Take telehealth, which skyrocketed during the pandemic—not just for medical care, but mental health services too. By April 2020, the use of virtual care for office visits and outpatient care was an astonishing 78 times higher than in February 2020. Since that dramatic spike, virtual care use has nonetheless stabilized at levels 38 times higher than pre-pandemic.

Telemedicine offers a bridge to care that simply was not possible before. It’s a major step in innovation to improve accessibility and affordability across healthcare—helping patients avoid the need to travel to a provider’s office, secure child care, or contend with unpaid work hours lost to an appointment.

Fostering equity starts with making a great first impression with your digital “front door.” It’s essential for people to feel as if they are treated with dignity and respect throughout the patient journey—from booking an appointment all the way to paying the bill.

Here are tactical ways to get it done:

  1. Ensure ease of use. Technology must offer a digital experience that is intuitive and convenient. This also means optimizing the patient experience for high performance (and ease of use) on mobile devices, so people can access services anytime, anywhere.
  2. Enable language integration. Digital tools can’t be created exclusively for native English speakers. All communications, including appointment bookings, reminders, and online payments, must be accessible to those with limited English (or even none). Bilingual translations, such as English to Spanish, are a good starting point. Multilingual? Even better.
  3. Offer support for disabilities. Does your digital experience support patients who are visually or hearing-impaired? Patient populations are typically a good representation of the general population. Given that 1 in 4 American adults live with a disability, ensuring your digital products are accessible becomes crucial to offering a positive and helpful user experience. For instance, you can account for users with color blindness and vision impairment by selecting colors that are more distinguishable. Also, text can be easier to read by exceeding minimum contrast ratio and size requirements.

How people bring technology to life

To be clear, technology will never replace human interaction in healthcare. Technology is only as good as the people and processes behind it.

Digital solutions are more often than not the foundation – rather than the full solution-  for a top-notch patient experience and increased patient engagement. For example, the Patient Experience Program at Maine Medical Center, MaineHealth’s flagship hospital, employs tactics like empathy training for all employees and professional staff, in order to foster an environment in which patients and their families are fully engaged and empowered to take ownership of their health.

What works well for one patient can leave another feeling confused and frustrated. That’s why it’s important to combine technological solutions with high-touch relationships as we all work toward greater equity.

This is especially true when it comes to the financial experience—payment parity is a must. There shouldn’t be a two-tier system for medical bills, nor should there be a one-size-fits-all approach. Forget about confusing paper statements, inflexible payment options, and aggressive collection tactics. Provide straightforward information about pricing and options, both pre- and post-visit. And no matter the messaging, remember to be kind. Approach billing communications as if they were going out to a family member or close friend.

Ultimately, if technology presents a barrier at any point during the patient journey, (human) help should never be more than a phone call away. Implementing new tools can be a gradual process. Make sure phone lines and call centers are sufficiently staffed to handle those incoming calls—and ideally hire staffers with bilingual capabilities. Aim to reduce wait times to avoid frustrations so everyone feels supported.

Conclusion

If you can achieve the right mix of high-tech, high-touch options, you’ve hit the sweet spot for improving equity and accessibility, patient engagement, health outcomes, loyalty, and profitability. When technology is implemented thoughtfully, it can transform our broken healthcare system and give every patient a fair and positive experience, no matter who they are.

Seth Cohen is President of Cedar, joining the company from his role as co-founder and co-CEO at OODA Health. Prior to co-founding OODA Health, Seth served as the Vice President of Sales and Alliances for Castlight Health (NYSE: CSLT) and is currently a member of Castlight's board of directors. Seth was also previously a management consultant at McKinsey & Company. He earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and an MPA from Harvard Kennedy School after completing his undergraduate studies at Stanford University.

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