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mHealth’s Goal: A Frictionless Patient (and Provider) Experience

OrthoTennessee is using an mHealth-optimized patient portal to help its patients do more from the comfort of their own homes - and give clinicians more opportunities to improve the recovery process.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

mHealth-optimized patient portals are most often seen as an easy way for healthcare providers to get in front of mobile patients - returning and new. But a health system that knows how to use its digital front door can see other benefits as well.

At OrthoTennessee, a 91-practitioner system with 10 offices spread across the state, administrators have seen payments on patient balances quadruple in less than a year, since the system installed Medfusion’s portal. And because doctors can check in on patients through the portal, they’ve seen recovery times shrink after surgeries.

“We’re engaging with patients in their recovery in a pretty amazing way,” says Karen Clark, chief information officer for the Knoxville-based health system.

OrthoTennessee is an example of a healthcare provider moving beyond using a patient-facing portal for simple information and communication services. Faced with an increasingly mobile consumer base, providers are putting more of their services into that virtual environment, including scheduling, payments, even follow-up care.

The platform is ideal for the episodic care environment in which OrthoTennesee operates. A patient needing orthopedic care, such as joint replacement surgery, checks in online prior to the surgery, has the procedure done at a clinic, then continues follow-up care at home with online consults at scheduled times. Function assessment surveys taken before and several times after the surgery chart the patient’s progress, and the portal is always available if there’s a question that needs answering.

“People live their lives on mobile devices now,” says Clark. “It’s their default device. It’s with them all the time while they go to work, while they go to school.”

And with orthopedic care, it’s much easier to check in online than travel to the doctor’s office for regular check-ups.

Clark, who says OrthoTennessee has had to arrange workflows and shift staff to make sure the portal is tended after-hours and on weekends, noted the platform hasn’t been altogether smooth. The health system spent several years with a “clunky” portal that produced far more glitches and complaints than compliments and soured staff on the benefits of digital health before changing vendors.

And it still isn’t as easy, she says, as going online to plan a vacation, go to the bank or make a restaurant reservation.

“We have not yet hit that usability threshold in clinical applications that we’ve hit in consumer applications,” she says. The ideal, she says, is “frictionless use” - a process so intuitive that it’s invisible to those using the platform.

But the improvements are there. Patient complaints, Clark says, have dropped significantly from 5-10 per week. And patients are recovering faster, as evidenced by their HOOS surveys.

“They’re getting better faster,” she says, because they know they’re being monitored – a doctor can check in on them if their surveys indicate any cause for concern, instead of waiting for the next scheduled appointment. There’s a certain amount of comfort, she adds, in knowing somebody’s listening.

Clark says OrthoTennessee wants to expand the portal’s services to enable clinicians to work more closely with their patients, such as coaching on lifestyle and chronic conditions that may affect a patient’s recovery. And she’d like to see the portal integrate more smoothly with the health system’s medical records platform.

For years, Clark says, federal efforts like the ACA and HITECH forced EHR vendors to focus on functionality and put usability on the back-burner. That has left healthcare providers with legacy platforms that might pass muster, but aren’t meeting the needs of an mHealth-optimized patient population.

“Now they’re starting to look at usability,” she says, offering platforms that can integrate with mobile devices at home and in the hospital, and giving clinicians the chance to use a smartphone or tablet instead of “lugging around a computer.”

The key, says Clark, is making mHealth “frictionless, transparent and easy to use” for the patient as well as the provider. Just like the joints they’re fixing. 

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