The vast majority of healthcare takes place outside of a physician’s office. Consumers often care for themselves when they have acute problems, such as colds and the flu, and they partner with their physicians in managing chronic conditions, like diabetes, hypertension, and asthma. When people visit their doctors’ offices, they usually receive test orders and/or drug prescriptions. But the onus is on the patients to go to the lab, to fill their prescriptions, to follow other parts of their care plans, and to make follow-up visits to their doctors. Similarly, after a hospital stay for a procedure or a medical condition, it is up to patients to comply with the post-discharge care plan when they go home.
This is a lot for many patients to handle. Studies show that 40% to 80% of the medical information provided by healthcare practitioners is forgotten immediately, and nearly half of what patients retain is incorrect. Written discharge instructions help, and some primary care physicians write down their recommendations for patients. Printed educational handouts can also help patients understand their conditions and how to manage them at home. In addition, patients can find a vast amount of information on the internet about health conditions and how to treat them. But this information is of variable quality and is often inaccurate.
For all of these reasons, it is important for physicians to maintain communication with patients between visits. This can come in the form of online or phone consultations that offer patients a chance to ask lingering questions and to gather the information they need to better understand and manage their own health. Providers can use these contacts with patients to explain test results, educate patients about their medications, diets, and self-care measures, and specify when or under what conditions the patient should come back to see them.
Unfortunately, most physicians don’t have much time to communicate directly with patients between visits. If their primary reimbursement method is fee for service, moreover, they don’t get paid for these non-visit consultations. But technology can aid clinicians in disseminating information to patients and alerting patients when they need to come in for preventive or chronic disease care. Reliable information on caring for chronic diseases at home can be sent automatically to patients without the need for a physician to make a call. Similarly, some patient questions can be answered via automated systems that reply by email or text message. And educational materials can be automatically sent to people who have particular conditions or comorbidities.
As healthcare moves toward accountability and value-based reimbursement, it is especially important for providers to use these technology solutions to connect with their patients. Personalized online communications can show patients that their physicians understand them and care about them. These contacts not only engage patients more fully in their own care, but also maintain the physician–patient relationship and promote loyalty. Health reminders can help ensure that patients receive recommended care, improving both outcomes and quality scores that help determine physician reimbursement.
Follow-up communication strengthens the bond between physicians and patients, leading to increased satisfaction and better health outcomes. Communication prompts patients to be active in their own care while improving their overall health literacy. And since much of the communication process can be automated, physicians have little to lose when they make an effort to provide patients with the most powerful health tool of all: information.
Kessels R. Patients’ Memory for Medical Information. J R Soc Med. 2003;96(5):219-222. Available at www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC539473.