Hospitals and healthcare systems across the US looked to technology last year as a quick solution in a healthcare crisis brought on by a global pandemic. Now, even before the dust has settled, the pandemic has made one thing clear: Telehealth, telemedicine, and virtual and digital healthcare tools (e.g., patient portals, payment portals, online scheduling) are here to stay.

While a recent 2021 study by Experian Health reports a decline in virtual healthcare encounters after its proliferation in 2020, numbers are still well above pre-pandemic levels and patients are indicating a desire for digital tools to be incorporated into their care. An experience patients previously considered obligatory—waiting rooms, registration, and paperwork, potentially multiple times a year—has now been thrust upon the tech industry where convenience and user experience are priority. Remote visits, new care delivery protocols, a higher level of consumer awareness and engagement, and a pressing need to nurture competency in patients and caregivers are but a few facets of the new normal.

Healthcare Brands Seek Ways to Pivot, Evolve, and Adapt to Post-Pandemic Realities

The evolution of telemedicine and telehealth, in a system evaluated by number of ‘encounters’ or ‘sessions,’ makes it far too easy to forget these new digital tools are just an alternate medium for delivering healthcare. Ian Chuang, M.D., Global Chief Medical Officer at Elsevier and Chief Medical Officer at LIFT, says we too often throw technology or other solutions at the problem without fully considering the experience and impact on the consumer, or patient.

“With telemedicine as a technology capability, it’s really more about virtual care—but that’s the thing—we didn’t focus on virtual care. Physician’s doors are closed, so how do we solve it? We substituted the office with a video monitor and tried to continue doing the same thing through this computer screen. Like with any change, we sometimes forget to look at the three axes: people, process, and tools/technology.”

— Ian Chuang, CMO at LIFT

Experian Health’s report noted that despite the increase in virtual encounters, online scheduling, payment, and registration, patients continue to be dissatisfied with their purchasing experience. Chuang echoes that insight, saying, “If you look at patient experience, it’s lukewarm because we didn’t change any of the underpinning pros and cons of what virtual care should be as opposed to just telephonic or tele-video care. Tele-video companies, telemedicine, focus on the tele- part, as opposed to thinking ‘how can care be provided to a virtual relationship in the process?’”

How will healthcare brands champion change, and what tools are best suited to facilitate?

While healthcare is a business, and patients are healthcare consumers, Chuang suggests an approach with the patient in mind as opposed to a traditional business marketing strategy approach. “Instead of approaching the problem from a first person’s perspective like increasing revenue, or patient volume, access, etc., from the context of the provider and healthcare organization, hear the voice of the customer and walk in their shoes. What is the ideal experience? And start from there.”

Virtual care has introduced an entirely new form of care delivery, but it isn’t without its limitations. For instance, as Chuang points out, not everything can be done through virtual interaction. “A patient can tell their provider they’re coughing, but without listening to your lungs a provider can’t differentiate between bronchitis and pneumonia.” Limitations make managing the care process and setting the right expectations difficult. Conversely, virtual care presents opportunities, such as remote patient monitoring, that could have positive impact on both health outcomes and the patient/provider relationship.

The Path Forward for Digital Healthcare Tools in Hospitals and Health Systems

So, how should healthcare brands promote the use of telehealth, digital and virtual healthcare tools to consumers? Ethnography and qualitative research, both important tools of Design Thinking, are critical first steps that provide fresh perspective and answers to new questions: How can we create a virtual experience that provides the same level of comfort and care, while high-quality and safe, as an in-person environment? What is the right balance of virtual and in-person encounters? How do you develop a therapeutic alliance and achieve empathy through the care process virtually and set the right patient expectations?

A new level of understanding and context is required for healthcare marketers seeking to communicate with and empower patients to take advantage of new and improved resources that can help play an active role in their health and well-being. The first order of business, when implementing change, is to understand the lived experiences and expectations of patients in light of a new care delivery landscape. The tools and protocols of Design Thinking offer a proven and highly effective framework for obtaining the understanding of the patient and other stakeholders’ reality, and then leveraging that understanding to create fresh education and patient support programs.Education and elevating competency are crucial in reengineering the healthcare process for physicians, clinicians, and patients in an evolving landscape.

“We often fall victim to using technology to try to solve an old problem in the current state, like access or effectiveness of the patient/provider therapeutic relationship, which is heavily dependent on empathy and the ability to be empathic in the care process,” Chuang says.

Empathy is the secret sauce to effective healthcare marketing and fuels the design process. The tools and protocols of Design Thinking leverage empathy so that your brand’s messaging responds to the needs and expectations of your patients. In this new hybrid healthcare landscape, one thing is certain: focus needs to shift from telemedicine and telehealth technology to virtual care. And Design Thinking offers the framework and tools needed to facilitate that change.

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