I.T. is a Tool, Perceived Quality is the Issue

Hospitals today can harness IT to redefine their relationship with customers and perhaps, equally important, redefine the quality perception of the hospital. The dilemma is that hospital executives invariably believe that they understand what quality is and will point to an impressive array of clinical indicators and outcomes. Results count, but what counts far more is how the consumer defines quality.

The consumer’s perception of quality is likely to differ vastly from that of hospital executives.

How does quality “show up” to the consumer? For many, through their phones.
Many providers have yet to fully embrace the reality that people have cell phones today, that more than 141,000 applications are available for download just on the iPhone, and that people are becoming less reliant on their desktop computers. The explosion of personalized information enables any individual to be in the driver seat, call the shots, and make better decisions about ones own health care.

The Options are Multiplying – The options for contacting, staying in touch, and sending reminders to patients are more diverse and hold more potential than ever before, especially for the provider with systematic IT capabilities designed to connect with the personal technologies that people carry in their pockets.

Consumers will make treatments and provider choices consistent with their personal values and based on anticipated results. Surely delivering expert medical services must be part of the mix? Yes and no. The delivery of expert health care and service is taken as a given – table stakes that you need to have, to be in the game.

Quality is always a moving target and always defined by the recipient, as much as providers wish it was stationary and always defined by them. Consumers will make their choices based on perceived quality, not necessarily on proximity or past relationships. To illustrate: smartphone users tend to invest their time and energy to running their lives more smoothly as a result of this pocket technology. “My life is that phone,” they will exclaim. The hospital system that sends them a text reminder about a “1:30 imaging appointment tomorrow, on Ridge Road,” confirms in the minds of these consumers that their health care institution is in tune with the times.

Me and My Phone – It’s a simple gesture, but a text or voice mail message about a scheduled appointment conveys to the consumer that this provider understands me or at least the way I schedule my time, arrange my affairs, and run my life.

This type of consumer downloads applications for his smartphone, health related applications among them. The variety of apps your hospital could develop for patients knows no bounds: apps on the seven tests for cancer, the first signs of a heart attack, how to perform CPR, what to do in the case of stroke, how to handle fainting or dizzy spells, what to do if someone has suffered a concussion.

A good app can help cement in the minds of consumers the quality of care that your hospital is capable of providing, hints that you are on their wavelength, and helps establish you as the go-to source when “something is wrong.” You could develop apps that accent your strengths, be it oncology, Ob-Gyn, or pediatrics. So, what apps does your hospital offer? Exercise regimens? Nutrition guides? Ailment-specific guides? Medication instructions and compliance assistance? Or none of the above?

Reminders and Amusements – Such patients want reminder pings asking, “Have you remembered to take your medication today?” maybe even three times a day, if that’s the daily pill regimen. For all of human history prior to this age, people either remembered on their own, or didn’t, without the aid of technology. Contemporary human reliance on pocket technology, however, cannot be denied or ignored.

So ingrained is the notion of turning to smartphones for instructions, reminders, updates, cues, formulas, and recipes, that it’s becoming second nature. People are now less reliant on their desktop computers and more reliant on their phone for everything. At the gym, you might see people working with an app-based workout routine that offers 20 different photos in sequence of the exercise that they want to be doing that day.

As the phones grow more powerful, more of the world is connected, more apps of greater utility become available, and life gets more hectic, using IT to support the consumer in ways they want to be supported likely will not be optional.

Ping to Me – Suppose each timed reminder, a “ping” in geek lingo, merits a response from the consumer and the response doesn’t come? With the right system, someone at the hospital will be able to call and say, “Mr. Williams, you haven’t pinged us back to indicate that you’ve taken your heart medication this afternoon. We don’t want you to have to return to the heart center, so please make sure to take your medication and let us know that you have.”

Does this sound like hand-holding? Is it seemingly an inordinate task? Based on the level of personal services provided in other industries, such as home security, the day when hospitals provide personalized updates, reminders, and custom monitoring might not be far off. Indeed to remain competitive, providing such customized attention might become mandatory as well as vital in reducing hospital readmission rates.

At the Women’s Center in the Tampa Bay Hospital, in Tampa, FL, when a patient arrives, she is given a Verizon cell phone. The phone only functions inside the hospital. She can take the phone to the cafeteria, gift shop, or anywhere else in the complex, knowing that she will receive a call only when the Center is minutes away from being ready for her appointment. A friendly caller will say, “Please make your way back. We’ll be ready to begin with you in exactly 10 minutes.”

Not a huge innovation, or is it? Restaurants have employed this technique for years. In hospitals, use of technology for such purposes greatly reduces anxiety. After all, does anyone enjoys sitting around in a waiting room where the minutes hang like hours? Especially when a patient is vitally concerned about some health issue, the ability to walk around versus sitting in a waiting room with other, equally anxious, patients can spell the difference between a pleasant visit and something else.

Among most patients, the perception of quality at the Women’s Center rises, independent of the medical services rendered.

Implications for your Hospital – What are you doing this moment to harness IT in ways that both serve consumers and help to raise their perception of the quality of your services?

  • Do you have an appointment reminder system in place?
  • Have you captured the requisite data to electronically connect with your customers? For example, do you have their cell phone numbers and email addresses?
  • Do you have their permission to initiate such contact?
  • Have you harnessed IT to make the patient’s experience more pleasant from the time he or she makes an appointment?

Preregistration, so basic, is more comfortable for people to complete at home rather than in the hospital or in a waiting room.

Duplicate and Triplicate – Time and time again patients complete the pre-registration forms in advance and mail or fax them in, or complete them online. That way, darn it, they don’t have to go through it all again when they arrive! Or do they?

The typical patient is thinking, “I appreciate that you’re letting me pre-register and submit all my medical history to you from the comfort of my home, but let it count for something. Enable this data to actually enter your system and be accessible so that I don’t have to go through this all again when I arrive.” It is anxiety-provoking to have to submit information that you know you have already submitted.

Once they’re inside the hospital doors, what do you do to ensure a patient’s comfort and ease? Do you provide in-house cell phones so that individuals are free to walk versus sit in a lounge chair? Have you scanned a photo of the patient so that your reception people have a fighting chance of greeting him or her upon recognition?

Are your IT systems configured so that the greeter can lookup whether or not the patient was here last week, or hasn’t been here for a year? Such knowledge would impact how the patient ought to be greeted.

Person to Person Connections – Larger questions loom. Does your hospital want patients to communicate directly with their doctors? By phone? By email? Does it make sense to establish doctor’s hours for addressing email? Are the same kinds of considerations being contemplated for nurses and technical specialists? Yes, this is a brave new world in terms of patient accessibility. Still, configuring your IT system so that your staff, from top to bottom, can communicate with patients one-to-one could prove to be mandatory in this ultra competitive industry.

  • Is your hospital developing its own apps?
  • Are you offering easily accessible frequently answered questions (FAQs)?

Are you using YouTube and Google Video to provide basic instructions such as: here’s how to check in, here’s how to care for yourself following your visit, here are the options if you have this type of ailment? If not, it’s time to get started.

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