December 11, 2021
Healthcare’s White Glove Service
How two health services organizations are thinking about customized care
Just how do providers (re)build trust among their patients? And how much can technology help?
It’s not that trust has been broken. But we’re witnessing a disconcerting shift in the relationship between people and the organizations where they receive care. And indeed, even in the relationship between healthcare organizations and the individuals within them who provide that care.
The conversation within healthcare about “consumerism” is smack in the center of how providers – and the VC and PE groups funding new models of care – talk about the future of the industry.
Counter to what you might expect from a communications firm, we’re going to suggest that the language is important but just doing the work is far more so. Does it matter if providers call us “consumers” or “patients” if the product they deliver works? In fact, maybe the terminology remains a discussion point because it’s a distraction from the industry’s failure to deliver on seamless, nearly invisible delivery of care. Because designing for people is, somehow, really hard.
Neither Harvard, Oxford nor Cambridge has been able to crack the code of using the wealth of available tools and technology to create a comfortable healthcare system that patients uh, consumers uh, people can fully trust.
So says Regan City, the director of the national subspecialty divisions and patient safety organization at Radiology Partners. A certified quality and patient experience professional, City aligns operational imperatives with what healthcare providers and patients actually experience.
She asserts that such alignment is far more complex in healthcare than in other industries. “Product customization isn’t possible in healthcare the way it is elsewhere. Marketing is targeted, but software isn’t,” she said in a recent interview. Simply put, there are too many variables in a patient population to be able to customize everything. You could pick one or two demographic characteristics and make some assumptions, but there are so many other factors that those assumptions might not fit. “You could assume the average 40-year-old woman has a smartphone, tablet or PC and can interact with us in a way we want her to,” explained City. “but if she’s in a lower socioeconomic strata, or doesn’t have time or access to technology, she won’t. We have to recognize that every person is an individual. How do we do that with how we drive our technology? We can’t be that customized.”
That’s the bad news, and while it is bad, it’s also refreshing. Better to name the problem and find a workaround than soft-pedal it and implement solutions that don’t move the needle. So if we can’t customize for everyone, can we offer something that works pretty well for many? Yes. Call it an offshoot of the 80/20 rule. Take things as far as you can for a general user base and then step in with high-touch, possibly manual, solutions to get the rest of the way.
City made the comparison to fine art. “More than half of the people consuming healthcare, just like attending symphony orchestra performances, are well over 60,” she said. Marketing to Gen-X is largely driving ‘consumerism’ and therefore the technology choices, but they’re not the heaviest users. “My sister works in development for an orchestra in a patron-facing role, and she says there are folks who will not go electronic. They feel they are spending a good amount of money and they simply want to bring their ticket with them.” Similarly, noted City, there are many smaller or rural practices where paper and faxes remain a staple, maybe due to the cost of implementing technology, but also simply because of the difficulty in overcoming the desire for things to stay the same.
The solution is to build technology that can do the work, and then bolster it with people typing notes, sending faxes, printing tickets, answering the phone. Continuing the orchestra analogy, City said that her sister will happily answer the phone any time someone calls. “But what that patron doesn’t know is the person on the other end is entering all the information into the system on their behalf.”
But then there is the need to build a comfortable experience for those who can use and do want an experience rooted in technology. For providers, there are no excuses anymore. The tools are available, and patient preferences are clear. “A tech-savvy user is going to be really happy if he can click around and get his lab results and then message his provider. And if we have a live person answering a phone for the elderly gentleman who isn’t sure where to click on his tablet, we can make him happy too because we’ve given him white-glove service.”
In another realm of medicine, Diana Health is a startup aiming to smooth out the entire pregnancy journey, from prenatal to postpartum care. It offers that white-glove approach in a slightly different way. Underpinning the company’s services is a technology stack that integrates every aspect of care and simplifies both access to and input of health data.
“We’ve spent time building out a technology platform that integrates with our EHR so that if a mom is struggling or has a question about sleep, she’s engaging in our digital app at home,” said Kate Condliffe, co-founder and CEO. “That data transfers into our EHR. It shows up in the encounter note and providers can engage in an operationally efficient way.”
Everything Diana Health does, according to head of product Lexi Mele-Algus, is designed “thinking about a human-centered approach married with the evidence. It’s blending the quantitative and the qualitative elements.”
According to both City and the Diana Health team, two things that are signs of success are, simply, fewer clicks and clear next steps – for both patients and providers. In various ways, both organizations define well-designed technology as that which allows everyone to navigate the care continuum more rapidly and know what comes next at each stage. That may mean a more labor-intensive intervention like a phone call or office visit – an analog encounter, as it were. But the technology helps smooth the way while staying out of the way.
That layering can be seen in Diana Health’s graphics depicting the benefits of its platform – note the clear blend of technology and personal relationships.
Going back to that 80/20 idea, clinical decision support is another area where technology can take care far down the road, then get out of the way for clinicians to take it the last mile. At Diana Health, Condliff and Mele-Algus describe tools that allow their clinical teams to develop highly individualized care programs, with variability reduced through evidence-based clinical decision support. The team gets a pretty good idea of what might be going on because that’s what the numbers say, but the trust is built when the personalization is layered on top. Or, as City said, “we need to have nuanced conversations around an individual’s healthcare decision-making and outcomes, but we can use technology to help us learn about what happens to 80% of people with this clinical condition.”
From there, putting caregivers in the right spot is the next critical step to providing seamless care that builds trust and comfort, not creates confusion. This has been an issue in healthcare for decades, but we may be on the verge of a new wrinkle with implementation of the 21st Century CURES Act and patients’ increased access to their own health records. “Patients should have access,” said City. “But we need to make sure they can consume that information in a meaningful way. Trained healthcare providers are the interpreter.”
For radiology, that means being more proactive in noting findings to other members of the care team. City said, “There’s a saying that radiologists are the physician’s physician. We’ve got to be more forward-thinking than that. What our doctors do directly impacts patients, so we’ve created software that helps radiologists put evidence-based follow-up recommendations and timelines in their reports.” It’s synthesizing all the clinical data plus what the radiologist interprets via imaging and making it clear to the end-user.
On the patient-facing side, Diana Health uses technology for both clinical decision support and to clear the way for more meaningful conversations and smoother handoffs between various members of the care team. Mele-Algus said, “There are all these tests we’ve traditionally had for well-woman visits. But people don’t take the time to think about what the patient is coming in for. What is their agenda?” The simple solution is to ask those questions beforehand – likely through an app – so patients can understand what the visit is about and what the visit could be, including helping them think about questions they may want to ask. And then, giving that information to the provider so they can jump into meaningful conversations.
The final piece of the equation – at least for the purposes of this discussion – is a fully integrated care team. Cross-specialty collaboration has been rising in prominence over the past few years, but it needs to be implemented faster and more widely.
As alluded to above, Radiology Partners is thinking about this in terms of bringing radiologists into the main circle of the care team, rather than sitting on the periphery handing down reports. Diana Health’s model is predicated on intense collaboration among a variety of specialists – Certified Nurse Midwives, OB/GYN physicians, licensed clinical social workers, care navigators and the patient herself. “Shared decision-making is a key element in terms of taking the provider’s evidence-based assessment while involving the patient in every conversation,” said Mele-Algus.
These conversations start from the first encounter. Under the Diana Health model, the care team considers social determinants, risk factors for mental health issues, stress levels and more. That assessment allows the midwife or OB/GYN to quickly recognize that a patient may need to see an LCSW and quickly make the handoff – and that second caregiver can trust the handoff because of the well-defined processes in place.
Condliffe explained, “The way we build collaborative care teams results in certified nurse midwives managing the bulk of routine care and with time to provide that level of engagement women want prenatally, intrapartum and post-partum. And it allows OBs to then make the best use of their time and come in when they’re needed to identify or manage complications, to do surgery. It drives efficiency in the clinical model and creates a level of work-life balance that matters to providers.”
That last point is key because of course provider experience also affects patient experience. With everyone practicing at the top of their license and using well-designed technology that reduces clicks, makes the next steps clear and “takes pixels on a screen to make something eloquent and beautiful,” as City put it, the clinicians themselves will be more comfortable and satisfied. They can focus more on building relationships with their colleagues and patients, maybe even feeling better physically and mentally because they’re no longer dealing with thousands of mouse clicks and endless alerts. They can simply deliver care.
Jim Corum, co-founder and COO of Diana Health, summed it up well in reflecting on his colleague’s comments: “Kate talks often about the desire of patients to be heard. And so it’s about setting up an environment and a framework and making the time. Because then you have the right clinician, the right support person there at the right time, and it’s all underpinned by this technology that gives that opportunity. Good things happen when that’s the case.