From in-person to virtual care and everything between: Omnichannel healthcare is here
Jan 27, 2023
11 min read
The healthcare industry tends to evolve at a slower pace than other industries. Cutting edge technology adopted in other fields like consumer goods and services, hospitality, and even finance, often doesn’t make its way into healthcare delivery until much later. This comes from a combination of concern for patient safety, aversion to risk, bureaucracy in many legacy healthcare businesses, and the opacity of the overall system making it a difficult target for digital disruption.
However, the evolution of digital health in recent years has nudged the industry toward embracing omnichannel care, which has proven success in the consumer product space since the early-mid 2010s.
This article dives into:
- Defining omnichannel healthcare
- The trends that have paved the way for the evolution of omnichannel care
- An example of the what a patient-centric omnichannel journey might look like
- Three essential keys to implementing an omnichannel strategy
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What is "omnichannel" in the context of healthcare?
Omnichannel healthcare refers to care delivered seamlessly through multiple modes: in-person, digital, and everything in between. The term evolved in the consumer product and tech space, but has come to define a more whole-person healthcare experience where care is coordinated and continuous across each patient touchpoint.
The omnichannel strategy in healthcare prioritizes a seamless user experience by employing and connecting all consumer touchpoints—in-person consults, lab visits, telehealth appointments, text-based chat with a nurse, virtual care planning, medication reminders, data from a connected device, and so on. This comes as a progression from single channel and multichannel strategies.
The key difference between multichannel and omnichannel healthcare is the focus on care continuity and patient experience in the latter. Multichannel approaches are focused on increasing the number of (often siloed) avenues through which to engage customers, including through websites, mobile apps, messaging platforms, phone calls, and in-person. Evolving a step further, the omnichannel strategy builds upon these numerous touchpoints and ties them together to create a smooth experience where information is shared across care team members.
As Owen Tripp, CEO of Included Health recently discussed, continuity of care that looks beyond improving convenience and that accounts for patient preferences, health history, and insurance coverage across the entire patient journey, is the long-term investment that would improve health outcomes and reduce costs, and this is the heart of omnichannel healthcare.
Trends paving the way for omnichannel care
There are a few key trends that have set up the healthcare industry to embrace omnichannel care. These include:
- The digital disruption of hospitals and health systems
- The rapid embrace of telehealth brought about by the COVID pandemic
- The slow march toward value-based care
- The rise of healthcare consumerism
- Healthcare personalization: Putting the patient at the center
Digital disruption of healthcare incumbents
Traditional spaces for healthcare delivery, including hospitals and private practices, are struggling with increasing costs and labor shortages while the digital disruptors are coming in and taking market share.
An analysis by Deloitte reports that digital disruptors in chronic condition management, care navigation, and digital benefits are working to improve affordability for patients. Virtual-first competitors typically offer a premium patient experience that prioritizes simplicity and transparency—elements often reported missing by patients in traditional healthcare settings.
And while new digital health businesses draw patients away from incumbents, many of these promising disruptors have also struggled to scale their businesses given the shortfalls of an all-digital model. Nearly every condition or care pathway requires at least some in-person touchpoints, whether labs, imaging, or physical exams. This is one of the reasons why many early healthcare digital disruptors focused on low acuity needs and routine prescription filling.
COVID’s telehealth revolution
Much like the fitness industry example above, the pandemic has induced the most prominent wave of digital medical services, including telehealth. Prior to the pandemic, telehealth usage was negligible, accounting for less than 1% of all outpatient visits.
Then, in the first six months of the pandemic, it peaked at 13%, before dropping down to 8% during March to August 2021. And though this may not seem like a lot, over 40% of surveyed patients indicate that they would rather access services virtually or in combination with in-person visits.
The move toward value-based care
Value-based care is in opposition to fee-for-service; both are models for healthcare reimbursement. As their names suggest, healthcare providers are paid per service they perform in the fee-for-service model.
In value-based care, payment and quality of care, in terms of both efficiency and effectiveness, are linked together. The former promotes quantity of services provided, while the latter promotes quality of care. Value-based care emphasizes patient-centric healthcare by prioritizing patient outcomes.
The rise of healthcare consumerism
Healthcare consumerism follows a similar patient-centric theme and refers to patients taking greater control of their health decisions. As the options for modes and providers of care increase, patients are increasingly “shopping” for the choices that best meet their situation, using cost and quality metrics to inform their decisions. Their high expectations for customer service and digital experience are increasingly driving healthcare decisions.
Personalized, patient-centric care
Perhaps most importantly, personalization has gained momentum across the healthcare ecosystem. As described above, patients increasingly expect a similar caliber of experience in their healthcare as they do in any other part of their life—they want to feel like their care team really understands their needs and is providing a tailored pathway that best fits their unique characteristics, history, and current circumstances.
This trend also ties to a broader reckoning within healthcare around how many clinical best practices have been developed through research primarily focused on white men. Patient gender, race/ethnicity, age, comorbidities, and social determinants of health should all be factored into their care pathways in order to truly prioritize positive outcomes.
An omnichannel patient experience in practice
In healthcare, an omnichannel strategy means providing personalized, coordinated care and communication across the entire patient journey. It includes delivering multiple modes of care (“omni-modal” care delivery), and engaging patients across multiple channels or touchpoints according to their preferences and needs.
Let’s take, for example, a patient navigating sinus issues. An omnichannel approach to care may look something like the following:
- Triage: The patient experiences nasal congestion and pain and tenderness in the facial region, which lasts for a week. The patient visits their health provider app and uses a symptom checking chatbot to help them evaluate the severity of symptoms. The chatbot recommends that they make an appointment for an in-person exam with their Primary Care physician. The patient determines that the symptoms likely point to a sinus infection.
- Patient intake and payment: Using their provider application, the patient is able to quickly and easily schedule an appointment with their primary care doctor. They enter information about their new symptoms and confirm their insurance information and medical history, which is already digitally stored in the same platform. They also opt into text message reminders for the day before the visit. The app reminds the patient that a co-pay of $20 will be due upon arrival, which they can either pay ahead on the same platform or once they arrive at the appointment.
- In-person exam: At the in-person visit, the doctor determines that a bacterial infection was the cause for the patient’s sinusitis and prescribes antibiotics, which will be ready for pick up (or delivery) at the patient’s local pharmacy later that day.
- Prescription and care plan: In addition to having the pharmacist as a resource for questions related to the medication, the patient also receives a post-visit note and summary from their doctor, accessible through the online platform, that details follow-up instructions, the care plan, and information about their prescription. The patient also has the option to message their doctor with any questions.
- Follow-up: The following week, a nurse reaches out to the patient to schedule a follow-up with the doctor via video consult to ensure symptoms are improving and to answer any additional questions.
- Telehealth consult: At the virtual follow-up visit, the doctor and patient discuss the possibility that a deviated septum can cause bacterial growth in the sinuses, leading to recurring sinus infections, among sleep apnea and other breathing problems.
- Referral: The doctor refers the patient to an otolaryngologist and sends appointment notes and patient medical history, and the patient easily schedules a visit through the digital platform.
The patient journey is a partnership between the patient, their healthcare provider, and their support system to create a positive environment that aligns with the patient’s needs and preferences. It builds collaboration and trust between patient and provider and recognizes that the one constant in a patient’s healthcare journey is the patient themselves. Patients are informed and empowered by their care team to be drivers of their health decision-making.
Patient-centric healthcare helps to improve patient engagement and satisfaction, which reduces the likelihood that patients switch providers, ultimately leading to continuity of care.
Omnichannel care ensures that patient needs are met at each touchpoint through whichever treatment modality is appropriate. Healthcare companies that offer personalized services to meet needs of a diverse patient population are most successful and this means meeting patients wherever they are—whether in-person in an exam room, on a landline phone, messaging via SMS, or in a dedicated digital application.
Three essentials for implementing omnichannel healthcare
An omnichannel strategy involves both the modes through which providers deliver care—often termed “multi-modal” care delivery—plus the touchpoints or channels through which patients engage with their health, which may or may not include direct communication with their doctor.
There are three keys to implementing an omnichannel strategy in healthcare:
Throughout the patient journey, the patient interacts with not only a primary doctor, but also with referred specialists, coaches, nurses, administrative or financial coordinators, etc. Where the US healthcare system often falls short is in all of the spaces between these communications, especially in communication and coordination between the patient’s care team members.
With an integrated health care system, all the moving parts are connected—all members of the care team have access to the patient’s health information, establishing a “whole picture” framework for treatment such that the entire care team can work together, rather than episodic treatment by individual health care providers—which reduces health care costs and hospital readmissions, enhances quality of care and experience, and improves access to services.
Integrating in-person clinic visits with telehealth appointments and online patient platforms grounds health care in a patient-centered approach and provides a consistent, smooth patient experience. It also helps build a trusting long-term relationship between a patient and their care team.
Healthcare personalization is contingent upon first, availability of data that can drive tailored solutions for individual patients, and second, the tools and technology to translate data into actionable information. The ongoing digital revolution of healthcare has unleashed advances in mobile and cloud technologies, as well as analytics tools, that drive progress toward increased personalization at each step of the patient journey. For instance, the provision of medically relevant health information to patients prior to their appointment can help them know what to expect and prepare questions for their healthcare provider.
Troves of patient data from disparate sources, including wearables that track activity beyond the scope of a doctor visit (e.g. sleep quality, heart health, exercise habits), can be aggregated and analyzed to produce powerful personalized insights.
As mentioned above, with patients increasingly involved in their health care and demanding a better care experience, personalization can help to enhance the patient journey by tailoring the experience to individual needs and desires. This builds upon patient-centric care.
While experts agree that high-quality communication with care team members is crucial, there is also an opportunity for automation to reduce the barrier on clinicians and provide always-on support for patients.
General questions about health plan coverage, appointment scheduling, and billing and reimbursement can increasingly be answered with a user-friendly digital interface as well as with chatbots. This redistribution of tasks between the manual and automated leaves more humanpower for duties that benefit from personal attention.
Administrative costs for the healthcare sector in the US are the highest in the world, with over 25% of total expenditures attributable to administrative costs. Automation of claims submission and processing, of which nearly 30% does not utilize fully electronic processes, could reduce costs by over $13 billion annually. Requests and questions that can be addressed through an online portal can be steered away from live-person service, which allows for more manpower in other tasks, leading to greater efficiency and lower costs.
Omnichannel approaches help providers
Omnichannel healthcare fills in the gaps in care, places the emphasis on patient-centric care, and facilitates a collaborative environment between patient and provider for the patient to bear more responsibility for their health decisions. This promotes positive healthcare experiences, increased patient retention, care continuity, and trust. When a patient receives comprehensive, accessible follow-up information and properly engages in postoperative care, it reduces the risk of complications and readmissions.
Five steps toward an omnichannel healthcare strategy
- Patient and clinician interviews: Interview patients and clinicians to understand their experiences navigating and delivering care respectively. Identify pain points, missed connections, or gaps in care. Understand patient preferences around how and when information is delivered—perhaps this varies by condition area, information type, age, or other factors.
- User journey mapping: Map out the patient journey, highlighting opportunities to address patient pain points based on interview findings. Begin to brainstorm how information and care could be best and most conveniently delivered at each step of that journey.
- Gap analysis: Next, hold your own solution up against that patient journey—where are there gaps in the way care is currently being delivered? Where can care be made more continuous through additional patient touchpoints or communication between care team members? How will your product offer a personalized patient flow that takes into account differences in health and technology literacy among patient segments?
- Solution mapping: Begin to map out what a future solution might look like that more seamlessly connects each point along the patient’s journey with your solution. Consider the role of personalization: How will you tailor care (either manually or through automation) to the spectrum of patient needs? How will you measure the success of this new strategy? Consider metrics like patient and clinician satisfaction, level of patient engagement at each step, a lifetime of patient involvement, adoption/churn rates, and care outcomes.
- Scoping and implementation: With a new plan in place, begin to scope the project to set clear milestones toward the end platform goal.
HTD leads technology discovery engagements with clients that follow the steps described above. Reach out through our contact page to learn more about how HTD can help your company move toward an omnichannel care strategy.
HTD is a digital services group working with the healthcare and wellness industries. HTD's experienced team works with clients to plan, design, and build custom healthcare software.