Help! I’m Stuck in the Virtual Waiting Room…Again. Here’s why Digital Investments Alone won’t Improve the Patient Experience | Deloitte US has been saved
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By Wendy Gerhardt, senior manager, Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, Deloitte Services LP
A few months ago, I was sitting on the couch with my 7-year-old. Together, we stared at the blank screen of my laptop and waited for the doctor to begin our virtual visit. At the end of our last in-person visit (shortly after COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic) the staff suggested virtual visits for the future. While this option meant we wouldn’t have to spend three hours driving, parking, and waiting to see his specialist, it didn’t dramatically improve our experience. For instance, we still wound up spending 30 minutes waiting for the doctor to appear (albeit we were in our living room rather than a waiting room). We had no idea how long we would need to wait…or even if we were still connected to the doctor’s office. Our experience could have been greatly improved if the administrative staff had just sent us an email or text when the doctor was ready; then we could have logged into a virtual-visit app. This strategy respects the patient’s time and creates a more thoughtful and convenient experience.
Prior to the pandemic, health systems and doctor offices had little incentive to make virtual visits—or other consumer-facing technology tools—available to their patients. My son’s doctor’s office says a virtual option has always been available. However, they never promoted it or even told me about it. When they started promoting their virtual option, they still ran it like a regular clinic day where the doctor would go patient to patient, be overbooked, and usually run behind. Even tools like online scheduling and online bill pay are not pervasive or seamless. It’s not surprising. The health care sector has traditionally lagged behind other consumer-facing sectors when it comes to the use of digital technology to improve the user experience.
The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions recently interviewed 10 technology, digital, and marketing executives from major health systems to understand how health systems are approaching consumer-facing technology. While our interviewees said their organizations want to improve the consumer experience for their patients—and have been making substantial investments in digital technology—they are often just digitizing antiquated analog processes. This includes everything from how we fill out paperwork (usually multiple times on a clip board) to how we pay bills (rarely without manually entering a code from the paper bill).
According to our research, digital maturity can vary widely by health system. Some of the people we interviewed told us that their organizations began investing in digital consumer experiences well before the pandemic and have since accelerated their investments. Other health systems were further behind. All respondents agreed that both digital transformation and the consumer experience should be top organizational priorities.
Digital technology has tremendous potential to improve the patient experience, but it also has the potential to add a new layer to an already frustrating process. Health-system leaders should design their processes with the end user in mind. Many health systems and medical groups now tout online bill-payment options and online appointment scheduling. Consider these three examples:
New entrants could reshape the patient experience…and incumbents
Most of the people we interviewed said they recognize that their patients often run up against multiple points of friction. While health systems typically haven’t focused much on patient experiences, there is agreement that this issue is becoming increasingly important. As these organizations try to smooth out these friction points, a growing number of consumer-focused, tech-savvy companies are already offering a truly digital, consumer-friendly experience for patients. Some of these groups, which are not tied to outdated legacy systems, offer seamless virtual visits and scheduling. And they are beginning to expand beyond basic health services. This is forcing some consumers to choose convenience over loyalty to their established doctor-patient relationships.
Health systems that offer their patients superior experience—before, during, and after services are provided—will likely be better positioned to retain and attract patients. As we move closer to a value-based payment system—or a future where consumers are more empowered—hospitals, health systems, and physician practices will need to retain their customers and add new ones. Unless they can smooth out some of the existing friction points with digital technology, they could start to lose customers to newer and more tech-savvy competitors that can offer a better patient experience.
Wendy Gerhardt, Deloitte Services LP, is a senior manager with the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. She is responsible for conducting research to inform health care system stakeholders about emerging trends, challenges, and opportunities. Prior to joining Deloitte, Gerhardt held multiple roles in strategy/planning for a health system and research for health care industry information solutions. She holds a BBA from the University of Michigan and an MA in health policy from Northwestern University. She is based in Detroit.