From AI-powered symptom checking to virtual intake tools, recent technological advances hold promise for enhancing care delivery
According to a recent study, messages from patients to their providers have increased by 157% since the pandemic began, with some health systems receiving over 100,000 electronic messages from patients seeking medical advice every week.
The result has been increasing pressure on providers who, according to the same study, are spending as much or more time working in the EHR after-hours than they were before the pandemic – often uncompensated for the additional time. Now, as part of efforts to address this influx of patient messages, some health systems have begun billing patients for messages with questions that require clinical guidance to resolve.
Managing patient messages is just one example of where technology can help streamline and improve information accessibility and communication for both patients and providers. Three specific areas along the patient journey where technology can greatly help are: triaging patients, reducing administrative work for intake forms, and supporting patients’ post-appointment needs.
Triaging to the right care
One health care challenge that is ripe for technological improvement is triage, or getting patients the right level of care they need in the first place. A recent study shows 40.5% patients don’t know the appropriate level of care for their needs without some sort of medical guidance. For example, a patient with a cough and fever may google their symptoms and think they just have a cold, when in reality they may have pneumonia and benefit from seeing a clinician in-person for a chest x-ray and antibiotic prescription before their condition worsens.
Without access to clinically-validated medical guidance, patients may wait too long before seeking care, or seek unnecessary emergency care, taking resources from others who need them more while incurring higher out-of-pocket costs.
Fortunately, technologies are emerging to help patients discover what level of care they need and empower them with information to make better health care decisions. AI-powered symptom checkers, for example, allow a patient to log their symptoms, receive a likely diagnosis, and be pointed to the appropriate care without requiring intervention from the provider, thereby freeing providers to focus on patients requiring face-to-face care.
Additionally, these tools are available at all hours, giving patients access to the information they need whenever they need it, even when their provider’s office may be closed. In some cases, patients may determine that visiting their provider in person is not necessary and instead access self-care information—again, without burdening the provider with calls or messages.
Reducing health care worker burnout
Another area where technology can improve information accessibility is by optimizing provider time. Doctors around the world are experiencing incredible levels of burnout — 63% of physicians reported feeling burned out in 2022, and 20% of health care workers have left their fields since the pandemic began, only fueling the fire of the health care workforce shortage. Additionally, research shows that providers have only an average of 18 minutes for in-person patient visits, and 83% say that the demands of their practice prevent them from spending as much time with their patients as they’d like.
One way that technology can help health care organizations address this issue is by automating and digitizing parts of the information-gathering process via virtual patient intake tools. Not only do these tools help speed up and optimize the patient intake process by delivering patient information directly to their provider, they also reduce the need for patients to repeat themselves several times throughout the process. Moreover, unlike emails, it’s a secure way of sharing health care information and an extremely important one for the majority of patients.
In addition, AI technology enables health systems to get more out of the intake process by drawing from patient–provided information, analyzing it for likely diagnoses, providing physicians with information on the likely diagnosis, automating note taking, and integrating with the provider’s EHR for better, more streamlined delivery of care.
Perhaps most important is the impact that this can have on physicians. By supporting clinical decision-making, reducing administrative burden, and giving them more time to engage with patients face-to-face, virtual intake can be an important part of reducing provider burnout and improving the patient experience.
Supporting patient follow-up
The final area where advanced technology can support more automated care is in follow-up care. Technology-enabled follow-up care, such as accessing informational resources, clarifying discharge instructions, or scheduling any necessary follow-up appointments, are not only critical for improving patient outcomes but are important for reducing administrative burden on providers and support staff. Additionally, leveraging technology administering and managing follow-up care will be critical to curbing the messaging influx previously mentioned, for which patients may increasingly be charged out-of-pocket.
While we have certainly seen improvements in the patient health care journey as a result of the pandemic, gaps still remain. With the help of scalable, advanced, AI-enabled technologies, we can shorten the journey, reduce challenges impacting patient care and provider satisfaction, and expand the delivery of health care outside the four walls of the hospital to optimize care and improve outcomes.
Tim Price is chief product officer at Infermedica, a digital health company specializing in AI-powered solutions for symptom analysis and patient triage.