Patient Engagement: Shoulda Put a Ring on It

Stephanie Sefcik March 9, 2016

As a newcomer to the medical technology industry, I went to HIMSS16 with no expectations, or as few as possible (I expected people to talk about technology in medicine, but that was about it). It quickly became clear to me that there are several buzz-phrases that exist in Health Information Technology right now.

“Managed care,” “gamification,” and “meaningful use” were very close runners-up in terms of rate of usage, but none came close to the belle of the ball, “patient engagement.”

I attended session after session trying to understand how all of these exciting companies were pledging to connect with, engage with, and court their patients and members, only to come to the same disappointing realization at the end of each carefully optimistic and impassioned speech…the idealism is there, the hope is there, but where is the accountability? The metrics and data that could prove actual patient engagement, that could identify the real human beings served and actual connections made seemed oddly and conspicuously lacking. If patient engagement is to be solidified and not merely courted indefinitely, someone needs to propose a metric for accountability of patient engagement.

The term itself, “patient engagement,” is so ubiquitous that it has become almost meaningless for all practical understanding.

Who is involved? How are they being “engaged,” and what does that look like?

Everyone seems to want patient engagement, but how does anyone know if it has been achieved, or if it is even attainable?

One presentation at HIMSS was about one Midwestern hospital’s new bedside tablet program that would “foster digital patient engagement to deepen the patient’s commitment to their health.” The program uses tablets that serve as digital charts for patients and their families to use to view patients’ stats and information. This digitization of patient info is probably easier for patients to read than messy doctor handwriting, but other than ease of access, what else engages the patient? What are the doctors and nurses putting on that tablet that is spending precious time in the patient’s hands, and how do we know if the patients are using it? The only metric for accountability and measurement of use is a survey given to the patient and to the nurse responsible for delivering the tablet to the patient. Anyone who has taken a survey knows that surveys, while certainly the easiest feedback to deploy, can be manipulated, taken carelessly, or forgotten in the trash, skewing or destroying all valuable data.

Therein lies the rub—many of the programs described and displayed at HIMSS16 are a valuable step in the right direction toward patient engagement, but in the presentations I’ve seen and read, very little has been considered with measurable, actionable metrics or data.

The HIT world is seriously underutilizing the incredible ease with which app usage may be monitored.

It would be much more valuable for doctors and nurses to be able to see how much time each patient spent in the app, number of times visited, and even embed reviews, surveys, etc. inside the app to create greater and more accurate response data.

Let’s not leave our patients hanging onto empty promises and passed dates—let’s give patients sleek, new engagement tools they can brag about to their friends. Let’s find ways to ensure accountability for promises to patients, and let’s use the ample supply of HIT practices accessible to make true, legitimate connections with patients who wish to better understand their own health.