Prescribing Patient Engagement (to Save Money and Lives): Part Two

Originally posted on Medium. Reposted here with permission.


Part Two: The How

Health organizations are beginning to appreciate the importance of improving the patient experience and are starting to move the needle beyond satisfaction. Why is it important for them to woo customers and guide them in their journey to better health?

Based on interviews conducted as part of a client assignment, Part One shared a few of the reasons why health organizations are engaging consumers.

Part Two shares how they’re doing it.

Why patient engagement is a must-have, not a want-to-have

Whether purchasing a car, eating at a restaurant or filling up the Amazon cart, consumers expect the best. Not only will they express opinions on and offline, but they’re fickle and will move on to a different flavor of the day.

Factors once relegated to cars, shoes and sofas are now imperative in an industry once ruled by a doctor’s prescription for care. Consumers have more choices in how, where and from whom they receive care. And the attitudes and behaviors they have learned from other industries will influence their expectations of providers, insurance companies, pharmacies and others who provide health services.

In the article, Measuring the Patient Experience, McKinsey suggests that patient satisfaction is influenced by a number of factors, from pre-admission scheduling and testing through to follow-up care, as well as the role that price, service offerings, physician referrals, and brand play in determining where patients seek care.

If health organizations truly want to improve outcomes and provide affordable care, they will need to track behavior along each of these the touch points of the patient journey. This means moving beyond patient satisfaction and actively engaging patients in self-care and prevention.

How are health organizations engaging patients?

There are many generations of individuals making health decisions today, ranging from Gen Y to traditionalists. As a result, a mix of traditional and digital channels is used to capture mindshare and engage patients. Using the right outreach tool, at the right time and with the right message, health organizations hope to influence consumers to make better clinical decisions.

Traditional channels

From basic communication skills to television advertising, health organizations are using traditional outreach channels to build trust, educate and engage patients.

Training personnel

Early in my career, it was commonplace for employers to invest heavily in training and development. As part of a retail banking program, I learned how to manage people, time and meetings better and more efficiently, invaluable skills which I still use. Unfortunately, investing in people is a rare commodity these days.

It is often basic soft skills that make or break the patient experience. And no one knows this better than SVMIC, a medical malpractice insurance company based in Brentwood, Tennessee. The company invests time and money in teaching doctors basic communication skills to connect with patients on a deeper, more personal level. If patients feel valued and heard, they are more satisfied and compliant, and far more likely to provide valuable word-of-mouth referrals, on and offline.

This strategy pays dividends.

Developing partnerships

Regence of Idaho believes that one way to improve outcomes and decrease costs is through value-based arrangements with physicians. The organization has created medical neighborhoods to help doctors coordinate and improve patient care within given geographic areas.

Through access to claims and analysis, insurance companies like this one can bridge the gap of big data, providing physicians with a more complete picture of a patient’s health. Working collaboratively, they hope to engage patients with their doctors to better manage chronic illnesses.

Offering cash incentives

Many Americans don’t take full advantage of the preventative exams covered by their insurance policies, a situation that can turn a light drip into a flood of medical problems if problems go untreated. Cold hard cash is one of the best incentives to motivate people, even after all these years.

My mom recently received a $25 Amazon gift card from Medicare for seeing her primary care physician for an annual check-up. Medicare also covered the cost of the actual check-up, so she came out ahead financially and physically by taking this simple step in her self-care.

“Offline” advertising

Consumers need to trust a health system before investing their money and lives in a doctor or other caregiver. Without a base level of trust, all other outreach initiatives might be less effective. Though digital outreach is the wave of the future, few tactics reach a larger, more diverse population than television, radio and billboard advertising.

As a director of marketing suggested to me, “At the top of the sales funnel is an organization’s brand. At the bottom is a potential patient who is ready to make a decision about where he or she wants to receive care. Without brand trust and familiarity, the patient will not choose an organization for health services.”

Traditional advertising can be expensive and harder to measure, but it is effective at increasing brand awareness and trust.

Sending direct mail pieces

With email inundating our inboxes, it’s almost nostalgic to get a letter or postcard in the mail. Direct mail may not be as sexy as online ads, paid search and email, but it’s hard to beat the cost per lead and conversion rates. In fact, the response rate for Direct Mail to an existing customer averages 4.4%, compared to 0.12% for email, according to Forbes.

Mailers diversify the approach to engaging patients and can be used as appointment reminders, announcements for upcoming classes or incentives to seek an annual exam. If sealed in an envelope, HIPAA protected information, like lab test results, is safe to send.

Another bonus? It’s easier to get good mailing data on prospective patients then email addresses.

Sponsoring events in the community

Another way to build trust and convey goodwill is through community sponsorships. Supporting a community by investing in activities and events not only builds awareness and trust, much like advertising, but it also helps move the needle to better population health.

For example, St. Luke’s of Idaho sponsors a range of programs to support healthy living, including Boise Green Bike, a bike borrowing program, and FitOne, and annual running and fitness event. Likewise, the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health supports a number of walking challenges to help fight childhood obesity.

Providing classes and seminars

While webinars and newsletters are a great way to keep consumers informed on a number of health-related issues, it’s especially beneficial to get advice straight from the caregiver source. Especially since consumers trust doctors.

Health systems invest in in-person seminars ranging from breastfeeding to cancer prevention. Delivered by healthcare professionals, individuals can ask questions and receive personal feedback on how to improve their lifestyle and habit — outside of annual appointments, and free of charge.

Digital channels

2017 was the first year that the U.S. digital ad spend was higher than traditional television advertising. Digital marketing offers advantages such as cost-efficiency, measurability, flexibility, testability and speed. It’s no surprise that health organizations are increasingly using digital channels to engage patients clinically.


Despite a flooded inbox, email still remains a cost-effective way to reach patients. Even if the open rate is low, it is inexpensive to send reminders, notifications and other sources of information to patients. Moreover, email is still the most widely used platforms on the internet. (Texting is the most popular communications channel for those 50 and younger.)

The most challenging aspect of this type of outreach is maintaining a database of current email addresses. Combining email with direct mail, health organizations hope to circumvent this challenge and reach patients with important messages about their health.

Website marketing

Websites are a great tool to find out more about physicians and obtain other important information about a health system or insurance benefits. It is also a great medium to research care costs and payment options.

I carried out a digital audit for one of my clients this summer and was totally surprised by the wide array of websites created by health organizations. What and how information is presented varies dramatically. Some have intuitive navigation structures while others have friendly icons to help structure and organize content.

Designing a site with a patient’s needs in mind — and keeping it simple — can help alleviate consumer confusion. And enhance the likelihood of collecting revenues.

Communicating through patient portals

Patient portals are growing increasingly popular as a way for patients to check test results, make appointments and pay bills. It’s also a HIPAA safe means for health providers to share information, such as a physician’s relocation.

Though sometimes rudimentary and not always user-friendly, it’s a step in the right direction for sharing information within a given health system. It’s especially beneficial for the elderly and specifically their family members who may need to access vital information about their loved ones.

Nurturing relationships

Though nurturing customer journeys is more common in high tech and consumer goods industries, it’s starting to catch on in healthcare, too. One caveat: a sophisticated CRM system is required, as well as technical support (not to mention a clean and current database).

Nobilis Health built a custom CRM system that is HIPAA compliant and secure. When patients request appointments, someone at Nobilis inputs insurance information, home address, gender, employer, family members and other relevant data points. By doing so, they can better assist patients throughout their healthcare journey, while also tracking expenses and attribution. While beneficial for patients, customer nurturing also helps the organization stick to profitability objectives.

Other health organizations use CRM systems to target prospects and measure the impact of outreach initiatives. Without these systems, outreach would be a shotgun approach with little insight into what works (and doesn’t). By tracking lead generation costs and patient revenues, health organizations are better able to determine the ROI of different service lines.

Developing apps

Providers, payers and healthcare startups are banking on apps as a way to reach customers and promote engagement. For example, the Digital Innovation Group at Providence St. Joseph’s Health is a product development and incubation team building tools that give patients easier access to care. Their goal is to improve the patient experience at a lower cost via innovation.

Portland-based Cambia Health Solutions is developing new products in-house and investing in start-ups to offer person-focused tools and technologies. The company distributes these innovations to members within their own network of health plans and beyond in its efforts to transform healthcare.

There is no single prescription for patient engagement that “cures” everyone. Recognizing the different needs and preferences of consumers, health organizations can communicate, collaborate and reach out in meaningful ways to impact and improve health outcomes.

Many thanks to the individuals who shared their thoughts and best practices.


Melinda Hinson is a marketer, researcher, writer. And health nut.

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