When examining methods for encouraging patient use of health apps and other forms of telemedicine, it’s important to start with the patients themselves.

Kaiser Permanente (“KP”), one of the country’s largest healthcare systems, says that more than half of its patient population performed simple medical interactions like paying bills or checking test results via a digital touchpoint over the last two years. The digital achievements of this healthcare giant are indeed impressive. KP CEO Bernard J. Tyson recently announced that KP engaged in almost 110 million digital interactions with patients in 2015, including a range of functions from remote physician consultations to downloading KP apps for smartphones. Taken together, these digital contacts accounted for 52 percent of all patient interactions with KP.

These numbers are the result of a clear strategy within KP. As Tyson puts it, “We are going through a major transformation in healthcare. Because we were all-knowing, we built the entire healthcare industry where everyone has to come to us, but now we are reversing the theory where people have to come to us for everything, so we’ve invested billions in our technology platform.”

Digital Transformation Doesn’t Have to Cost Billions

KP stands out at the front of the field with its commitment to changing the nature of healthcare delivery. However, it’s essential to examine the ways in which incremental change can be encouraged throughout the healthcare ecosystem. Not every provider wields the enormous resources of KP, but digital technology is nonetheless essential in order to bring down cost and ensure that everyone in the country has access to the care they need.

Health-related technology options are increasing rapidly, and (like all digital products) they tend to become more sophisticated and less expensive with each successive year. Healthcare costs, on the other hand, continue to rise, and the uncertainty in today’s health insurance market adds urgency to the need to contain these rising prices. The ongoing question is: How can other healthcare providers (insurance, hospitals, clinics and other facilities) improve their digital offerings to increase the proportion of simple interactions performed digitally and move toward more complex healthcare interactions being performed in a digital channel instead of a time-consuming analog channel?

Broad-Spectrum Methods for Expanding Digital Healthcare

When examining methods for encouraging patient use of health apps and other forms of telemedicine, it’s important to start with the patients themselves. What do people want from their healthcare providers? And how will digital innovation meet those customer needs? It’s informative to start this examination with a population of patients who are currently heavy users of healthcare: those who have long-term conditions. Research by Patient View shows that the following three app characteristics are the top drivers of digital adoption among this group of patients:

  • The ability to help patients stay in control of their condition, or to be healthier: This was cited as the most important element of a health app by 70 percent of the respondents in the Patient View survey. The researchers noted that most health apps aren’t specifically recommended or endorsed by a physician, and the ones that are tend to attract more users.
  • Ease of use and intuitive design: This quality is especially important to patients who have mobility issues or learning disabilities. Patients seeking health assistance are already feeling stressed, and they don’t necessarily have the willingness to take on a complex learning curve.
  • Trustworthiness and accuracy: Patient and consumer groups stressed the need for apps to be based on evidence-based research. There’s also a strong interest in apps that update themselves in response to new guidelines about a particular condition — and which also provide news and information to keep patients informed.

In light of these three benchmarks, it’s useful to examine some of the steps defined by various insurers and providers as they bring digital innovations to their particular niche of healthcare delivery. The following are some useful directives, along with examples from today’s healthcare industry:

Tailor Digital Tools To Known Consumer Data

Customer service research published by Customer.com indicates a growing trend to use virtual assistants for more than just answering questions. Instead, virtual assistants are “crossing over,” being used increasingly for the normal online activities a customer performs: placing orders, managing accounts and so on. Aetna uses a virtual assistant software app from NextIT, called “Ann.” This app collects over 80 member profile variables from Aetna’s backend systems in order to personalize responses to member queries. In this way, customers receive more relevant answers than a simple search function could provide.

Streamline Digital Services by Providing Consumers With Omnichannel Access to Resources

Different sectors of the healthcare marketplace have different preferences when it comes to their favorite channels for accessing information. Cultural variations and other demographic factors come into play, so it’s important to think in terms of ease of access. AfterOurs Urgent Care uses an email encryption service to contact patients directly via email rather than requiring portal login to view secure communications.

Drive Digital Transactions by Offering Value That Analog Channels are Unable to Deliver

Finding a medical practitioner and booking an appointment has become overly complicated when attempted only by way of in-person phone calls. ZocDoc enables patients to find a provider in their insurance company’s network and book medical appointments remotely anytime. The app also allows users to add appointments to Outlook/Google calendars with one click and automatically receive booking confirmations and SMS reminders for upcoming appointments.

Adopt a “Mobile First” Mentality

While 84 percent of consumers (ages 18-65) prefer interacting digitally with their health insurer, the preference for using mobile devices for this purpose is growing fast. A research report by Cognizant on The Digital Mandate for Health Plans indicates that patients find mobile interactions to be the most satisfying, but many digital services that are most important to them are not yet available via mobile apps. For example, 78 percent of survey respondents stated that being able to use their mobile devices to confirm coverage or look up benefits is very important to them, while only 46 percent say that this service is currently available to them.

Integrate Digital Offerings With Third-Party Devices and Platforms to Optimize Convenience

HumanaVitality is one of the many apps that enables members to connect to Apple Health. Recognizing the potential benefits in all directions from this type of networking, Apple Health recently rolled out its new ResearchKit and CareKit platforms, as well as the software needed to make them work. Third-party developers of health-related apps can use Apple’s treasure trove of open-source software, as they build apps that will connect to Apple Health. Apple recognizes that the digital transformation is partly about sharing the cost and resources. (That’s one major workaround to the KP spend-billions approach.)

Consider Migrating Less Critical Patient Interactions to Automated Channels

Sensely provides a virtual nurse named Molly, designed to offer customized monitoring and follow-up care for discharged patients. “Molly” uses avatar-based artificial intelligence to connect with an array of monitoring devices and provide real-time security to remote patients. This “chatbot” can reach out on patients’ behalf to a doctor in case a problem shows up on the monitoring devices or if patients need to speak to a human being. Sensely calls itself a “chronic care platform,” and this San Francisco-based startup has attracted $2.5 million in its Series A funding rounds. This type of telemedicine offers a way to mitigate the impact of the growing shortage of nurses while increasing the health of patient populations in a cost-effective manner.

Ensure a Frictionless Transition From Digital to Human Channels When Necessary

While technology can fill a valuable supplementary role, it will never replace the function of human interactions in the provision of healthcare. Customers tend to appreciate the convenience of digital apps (87 percent of people surveyed would prefer to use digital assistants to complete their appointment scheduling requests). However, these same respondents point out that if they need to be transferred to a live person, they don’t want to have to repeat the information they already gave. Similarly, when medical conditions are being remotely monitored, it’s essential that the real-time data trigger contact with an in-person provider if there is evidence of a problem.

Use Predictive Analytics to Deliver Individualized Support Across All Phases of the Consumer Journey

Cigna developed “Compass,” its technology-based guidance system, to help its customers at JPMorgan Chase “develop a culture of health … and make wellness a part of their everyday lives.” Compass synthesizes disparate consumer data, including medical plan use, physical activity, biometric data, incentive information, claims history and coaching program involvement. All this information is integrated into a predictive analytics program, thereby providing members with personalized alerts regarding opportunities to improve their health and reduce expenditures.

The evolution of the healthcare industry is a work in progress, but two aspects of that evolution are already very clear: First, any method for reducing the cost of delivering care will be readily embraced in the industry as long as patient outcomes continue to improve. Secondly, the healthcare consumer is gaining greater power to make choices. This means that in order to be competitive, healthcare providers must attend to customer preferences and deliver pleasing, streamlined patient experiences. The digital transformation of healthcare is still in its early days, but it will continue to penetrate the industry at both macro and micro levels. Profitability for providers of any size will depend on their ability to leverage the array of new digital tools.