Advancing consumer-centric healthcare with a digital front door

Creating a high-quality patient experience is top of mind for most healthcare leaders. Unfortunately, words like inconvenient, inconsistent, inefficient, overwhelming, and confusing are often used by patients to describe their healthcare encounters. From patient access to health equity, the critical issues that affect the care of individuals and communities must be solved. To provide a more seamless patient experience, in any medium, at every point of the care journey, many organizations are embracing a digital front door strategy.

Read on for insights into why the digital front door is important in healthcare, the potential benefits to patients and organizations, best practices for an effective implementation, and lessons learned from Texas Children’s Hospital’s successful digital front door launch.

The importance of a digital front door in today’s healthcare landscape

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for digital healthcare skyrocketed as the industry struggled to engage people in their healthcare amid the risks of in-person contact. Awareness and adoption of virtual health also increased because of emergency policies that temporarily waived telehealth restrictions related to Medicare reimbursement, geographic location, eligible providers, and covered services.

But, even before the global health crisis, organizations were feeling the push to use technology to deliver a better patient experience due to changing trends and demographics. In fact, pre-COVID research showed 80% of patients selected their provider based on convenience alone, millennials outnumbered baby boomers as America’s largest living adult generation, and U.S. consumers spent five hours per day on their mobile devices.

Additionally, healthcare leaders realize they must strive for brand loyalty just like other industries as modern consumers have an abundance of choices including new players like CVS and Walmart.

 2022 was the worst financial year for hospitals and health systems since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic with half of U.S. hospitals ending the year with a negative operating margin.

This growing financial pressure has prompted hospitals and health systems to consider digital healthcare tools to increase care quality and patient engagement and retention. Virtual care can also help with reducing costs and driving revenue for new care models and care management approaches.  

The benefits of a digital front door for patients and healthcare providers

The rise in demand for digital healthcare requires organizations to prioritize virtual health, consumer-centric healthcare, advanced analytics, interoperability, and  a unified digital experience. Now, more than ever, there’s a tremendous opportunity to create a healthcare ecosystem that’s more accessible, personalized, agile, and connected. Investing in a digital front door can help you:

  • Enhance patient ease and convenience
  • Reduce costs by advancing self-service tools that free up staff to focus on more high-value work
  • Transition from a needs-based to an engagement-based resource for your patients
  • Increase revenue and market-share through patient loyalty and retention

“The value of the digital front door is far-reaching,” says Leslie Sehr, senior manager of advisory services and performance improvement, Nordic Consulting. “This investment will continue to deliver for years to come, though the journey will be long. If you set this up right, your digital front door will open doors you never thought were possible.”

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How to create a successful digital front door for your healthcare organization

Defining your digital front door starts with setting the foundation with goals, guiding principles, and governance. Engagement and support from leadership at the top and across the enterprise are necessary for a successful roll-out. Organizations should also understand that activating a successful and comprehensive digital front-door strategy requires significant change in technology, people, and processes.

"It's important to level set about your goals and definition of success with your leadership team and stakeholders," says Polly Parrent, director of advisory services, Nordic Consulting. “Every region, every market, every health system, and every person are different in terms of their needs, preferences, buying power, and how they want to be communicated with. Understand the makeup, needs, and priorities of your patient population. The definition of your digital front door and the digital roadmap you create should align and resonate with the majority of your community.”

Mohanbabu Vaishnav, director of advisory services and digital health at Nordic Consulting, recommends a digital front door process that starts with developing goals and a roadmap for initial improvements. The next steps are expanding access to services and reducing unnecessary touches to be more patient-focused, and eventually, transforming the experience to create a community-centric culture.

"The first step in understanding your digital front door approach and implementation options is to identify where you are today and how you currently stack up against your goals,” Vaishnav says. “This exercise can be completed with a simple gap analysis where you compare your digital front door definition against your current capabilities.”

Building your digital front door should include an examination of your EHR capabilities, third-party vendors that can fill key gaps in EHR functionality and your patient population’s most pressing digital demands.

“Across the digital front door strategy, it's important to focus on the EHR and patient-facing capabilities as well as the underlying operational workloads and how they'll support an integrated patient experience,” Sehr says. “Referrals, scheduling, financial clearance, and patient engagement digitization are reliant on the corresponding operational dependencies, and without them, the digital experience may not be as streamlined.”

Lastly, as the healthcare industry transforms, so should your digital front door tactics.

“It’s going to be a continuous evolution,” Parrent says. “There’s no stopping point or end.” 

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Real-world success:  implementing a digital front door at Texas Children’s Hospital

A real-world example of the value and power of the digital front door is Texas Children’s Hospital, which serves over 4.3 million patients annually at more than 10 locations across the greater Houston area. After getting patient feedback in 2017, the health system began working to improve the patient experience of scheduling appointments. Texas Children’s faced a lack of consistency in physician scheduling templates across departments. Through a cross-team engagement strategy, over 200 people across the health system collaborated on the project, which was anchored by these principles:

  • Drive a culture of “yes”
  • Focus on the customer
  • Keep it simple
  • Embrace standardization
  • Communicate frequently
  • Leverage technology

Texas Children’s partnered with Nordic Consulting to produce an operational playbook to help innovate and optimize the design and development of its digital front door. From October 1, 2020, through September 30, 2021, the patient access initiative yielded several successful outcomes such as:

  • 4 million patient questionnaires completed digitally
  • 1 million visits scheduled online
  • 536,000 eHealth visits completed
  • 96,000 patients pre-checked and self-arrived
  • 80,000 COVID-19 vaccines scheduled online
  • 7,500 eHealth patients oriented and roomed

Although the initiative focused on patients, Texas Children’s saw a halo effect on its revenue cycle during the same time frame. For instance, 20% of all appointments were scheduled online, 42% of patient payments were collected through the patient portal (up 12% in three months), and 21% of statements were delivered as paperless (up 42% in three months).

“We’re really looking at meeting our patients where they’re at and serving up information in the right way to them. That’s where we continue to work,” says John Hamm, former vice president of IT data, clinical, and business solutions at Texas Children’s. “What’s fantastic is we have the culture of yes, engagement from our physicians, the right technical skillset and knowledge, and the mechanisms in place to respond to issues.”

Healthcare innovation must meet people’s needs in the now and the next. Before, during, between and after a patient visit, the digital front door can help your organization address urgent healthcare challenges. And, as you reimagine the patient experience using digital tools, there’s also potential to increase operational efficiency and create greater financial sustainability.

Topics: featured, Performance Improvement, Patient-Centered Care

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