EHR vendors ramping up focus on patient messaging tools as healthcare consumerism takes hold

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, patients were frustrated with how providers communicated with them, often requiring them to play phone tag, leave voicemails and wait on hold.

Healthcare is one industry that should be known for its customer service but the sector has fallen behind as other industries have embraced consumer-centric approaches, according to Guillaume de Zwirek, founder and CEO of startup Well Health. For patients, communicating with doctors and care teams should be as easy as texting a friend, he said.

As digital adoption ramps up during COVID-19, providers realize they need to be more nimble in their outreach to patients to communicate about COVID exposure, testing and vaccine appointments. Electronic health record (EHR) companies are investing in digital communication capabilities to help providers meet patients where they are spending their time: on their mobile phones.

Meditech is partnering with startup Well Health to build out two-way patient messaging capabilities through its Expanse platform. The integration between Meditech's Expanse and Well Health uses EHR appointment data to automatically send patients routine reminders, instructions, and follow-up messages in 19 languages, empowering staff to communicate with more patients by eliminating language barriers, the companies said.

"Expanse Patient Connect enables our customers to meet a range of communications needs, while ‘closing the last mile’ with patients and their families, connecting them in real-time, wherever they are, in one of the most widely accessible ways—through text messaging," said Meditech executive vice president Helen Waters.

RELATED: Cerner taps Well Health to improve patient messaging as digital adoption ramps up during COVID-19

Meditech's web-based EHR is used by a quarter of all hospitals in the U.S., nearly half of all Canadian hospitals, and healthcare organizations in 23 countries, according to the company.

"We are now moving pretty fast towards this narrative that the industry has talked about and whispered about for years which is that it's time for patients to be in control of their experience in healthcare, versus having it dictated to them," Waters told Fierce Healthcare. "And COVID-19 has expedited the desire to get in touch with patients more remotely with the goal of keeping them out of the emergency rooms and ambulatory areas."

While text messaging improves accessibility and convenience, enabling more advanced features will drive a deeper connection to patient health and wellness opportunities, according to Waters. Patients can conveniently access links to pre-register, complete questionnaires, or review their latest results—all accessible through their Meditech patient portal or MHealth patient app, and/or via text messaging.

"There is a generation of patients accustomed to using their mobile smartphones to do things. Well Health's technology helps with proactive communication with patients to engage them in the healthcare system and educate them about their conditions," she said. "The broader goal is to use the sophistication of Well Health's technology and the toolset of the Meditech system to change outcomes and trajectories for patients."

The COVID-19 pandemic also has accelerated a shift to delivering more care in patients' homes, increasing the need for effective patient communication tools,  de Zwirek said. 

"Our partnership with Meditech is taking us in the right direction to make the experience more consumer-friendly, whether the patient is in a hospital bed or at home being monitored," Waters said.

Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Well Health, which launched in 2015, developed a platform that enables conversations between patients and their providers through secure, multilingual messaging in the patient’s preferred communications channel: texting, email, telephone, and/or live chat, without downloading an app. The company provides patient communications and engagement technology to more than 200 healthcare providers and has helped facilitate more than 1 billion messages for 30 million patients.

RELATED: Well Health, Twilio team up on patient communications tools to support vaccine distribution

Well Health also struck a partnership with health IT giant Cerner to improve how clinicians communicate with patients. Cerner integrated Well Health's features into its patient portal to solve gaps in communication and improve patients' engagement with clinicians through intelligent and automated messaging.

The venture capital-backed startup also teamed up with customer engagement software giant Twilio to enable health systems to more quickly roll out patient messaging tools. Since the vaccine became available, more than 70 healthcare systems have used the company’s technology to send 1.6 million messages to patients about the COVID-19 vaccine and have scheduled or followed up on close to 200,000 COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

Ambulatory technology company NextGen Healthcare also is seeing rapidly increasing demand among its provider clients for patient-centric tools such as mobile check-in for patients and online patient payment processing options integrated with EHR systems.

In March 2020, NextGen rolled out a patient experience platform that includes integrated virtual visits, patient self-scheduling, previsit check-in and patient payments.

"Patients have a journey through a practice. What our clients want is a seamless, integrated experience that is pleasing and consistent to the patient as that activates, engages and attracts patients to their practice," said NextGen Healthcare CEO Rusty Frantz during the company's fiscal 2021 third-quarter earnings call in January.

As healthcare is moving toward an app economy, there is a need to provide patients the same person-centric digital experience in healthcare as they receive from other industries, de Zwirek said.

"The healthcare industry is one that really deserves to be at the bleeding edge in terms of delivering an exceptional experience as patients navigate the complex web of interactions," he said. "Every single interaction, before they reach the hospital to after they are discharged, needs to be frictionless."