Industry Voices—5 steps to develop an effective 'always-on' patient communication strategy

Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. National Diabetes Month in November. American Heart Month in February. In the U.S.—and in many parts of the world—we have done a great job of drawing attention to certain diseases. But the diseases that go along with those 30-day periods don’t take time off; they affect people every single day of the year.

Consider this: A woman is diagnosed with breast cancer every 2 minutes in the U.S. That means 240,900 women will be diagnosed between November and September, the non- “awareness”-months. So why do health systems and healthcare marketers focus their attention on driving screenings during small windows of time throughout the year? Why are they not trying to drive patients—especially those at higher risk—to get screenings every month, week and day of the year?

Healthcare is not a seasonal service. Because patients need care consistently, outreach efforts have to be happening all of the time, not just during certain time frames. Fortunately, the wealth of rich healthcare data coupled with new innovations, like AI, enable marketers to deploy and automate always-on patient outreach programs. This means that health systems are in a unique position to not only drive better health outcomes through early preventive care and screenings but improve patients’ experience at the same time.

The question is, how can providers harness this power to draw in patients for the services they need most?

1. Utilize AI

Any effective campaign relies on data, and an always-on patient communication system is no different.

Sorting through all of the information any medical provider has is an insurmountable task for the marketing team. Fortunately, machine learning technology makes it possible to uncover hidden correlations, predict patient needs and risks. Turning first to AI, then following up with automated messaging saves valuable time and amplifies human efforts.

Provider Virtua Health did just that when they turned to AI in order to sift through patient records and identify those at the highest risk for breast cancer. Using what they learned, the New Jersey-based health system then targeted efforts at dialogue with that group. The end result was more than 11,000 scheduled mammograms.

2. Prioritize next actions

Most people receive hundreds of emails, texts and phone calls in a day. It would be impossible for anyone to act on every message they see. Healthcare notices should be a higher priority, but when too many communications are coming through, patients may become overwhelmed and do nothing.

Instead, providers have to identify and prioritize the most critical action for each patient. What is the single most important step they can take to better their health right now? Focusing on an individual call-to-action increases the likelihood of patient follow-through.

For example, instead of sending out annual check-up reminders, healthy living tips, vaccination schedules and screening prompts, clinicians and their marketing teams should rely on data analysis to send just one of these items to each patient, depending on individual needs. This message can then be repeated as needed until the patient acts on it.

3. Follow the risk

Not all patients need constant reminders about their health. Many individuals take charge of their own appointments, and others have few risk factors to cause concern.

It makes sense, then, to focus on those patients who are at high risk for serious illness. This should go beyond a simple demographics analysis. When trained on existing medical files, machine learning has been shown capable of identifying patients at higher risk for hospital admissions and even cancer. Data can also be used to identify potential health equity problems before they happen.

Once these high-risk groups have been identified, it makes sense to put resources behind outreach to ensure that the risk does not become something more. Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania used this type of approach to find and connect with patients at high risk for colon cancer. More than two-thirds of those patients contacted came in for a colonoscopy, and the majority of them did have problem findings requiring treatment. Catching risk groups is a vital part of always-on outreach.

4. Customize communication

Individual marketers cannot possibly communicate personally with each high-risk patient. However, a personalized approach is exactly what is needed to encourage patients to engage with their own healthcare and prevent poor outcomes. This is why automated messaging is the key to a successful always-on program.

Once the risk group and the critical next step for each patient have been identified, a custom communication journey is the next step. This can be done by sending out the right content at the right time, based on where patients are located and their specific needs.

Another way to tailor messaging to each individual is consideration for preferred methods of communication. An older patient may prefer automated phone calls or mailed letters, while a Millennial would rather read a text message. Even younger patients might be most likely to see a social media message or prefer video content. The method of delivery is just as important as the content itself in reaching patients. 

5. Call to action

Marketers already know that every piece of communication should include a call-to-action––what do you want the patient to do as a result of this message? The action may be clicking a link, picking up the phone or responding in some other way.

For always-on campaigns, every customer engagement is important, but the ultimate goal is most often to get patients through the doors for an appointment. To accomplish this, providers must make a compelling case for why the visit is needed. Fortunately, the data is already there––letting people know they are at high risk for certain conditions is half the battle in getting appointments scheduled.

Just as important is effectively managing the schedule of the clinic. A good always-on campaign will utilize the proper tools to throttle communications when traffic is high and send another cycle of messaging as openings become available, respecting everyone’s time and using resources efficiently.

Diseases do not disappear simply because it isn’t their turn in the revolving spotlight of awareness, and outreach can’t afford to stop, either. With the right technology and a solid plan, providers can effectively communicate with patients and keep those vital services booked, no matter what month it happens to be.

Joe Schmid, CTO at Actium Health, leads the technology strategy and data science at the company, focusing on building a platform that drives machine learning at scale across complex clinical and behavioral science domains.