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Accenture - the importance of keeping the human touch in digital healthcare

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez August 17, 2021
A new Accenture survey highlights the changing attitudes towards digital healthcare during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Diagnostician with icons representing value-based health care © LeoWolfert - shutterstock
(© LeoWolfert - shutterstock)

COVID-19 has brought a renewed focus on how healthcare is delivered across the world, with digital technologies playing a key role over the past 18 months. Virtual consultations, the use of data, digital therapeutics and remote monitoring have all increased during 2021. It would be naive to assume that attitudes towards how healthcare is received, or how providers are thinking about the delivery of healthcare, has stayed the same during the course of the pandemic. 

According to the latest research by Accenture on this topic, which surveyed 1,800 people in the US, the healthcare experience is changing. However, the key point worth noting is that the human element of healthcare provision is more important than ever - despite the uptick in use of digital tools. 

It's also interesting that the variety of digital tools used since the pandemic started is changing. For instance, the use of mobile applications dropped from 35% in 2020 to 18% in 2021 and the use of social media and online support communities/resources also saw a fall from 29% to 12% for the same period. 

However, virtual consultations jumped from 7% in 2020 to 32% in 2021. Digital therapeutics also rose from 3% to 10% over that period and the use of electronic health records increased from 18% to 31%. 

An explanation for the changes hasn't been provided, but one guess could be that healthcare providers are maturing in their use of digital tools to service patients remotely and that is being reflected in usage by patients. 

People were also asked what would make them more likely to use digital technology to manage their health - and the answers reflect that patients still want personalized care from their healthcare providers. Care that places them at the center, giving them control and that gives them clear information. This shouldn't necessarily be surprising, but as we've seen in other industries, sometimes the use of digital tools can lead to complacency that doesn't meet the user's needs. 

The findings show, for example, that 33% of people would be more likely to use digital technology to manage their health if it involved a recommendation from their medical provider; 30% said the same if they had confidence in data security and privacy; 30% would adopt if it meant better information about their health. 

Interestingly, 43% said that they would not be willing to have a virtual care appointment with technology companies in the future - suggesting that medical providers are more trustworthy. 

Better experiences

It's also clear from the findings that despite the use of technology and new ways of engaging with patients, people are still having negative experiences with healthcare providers. Healthcare is very often stressful and emotional, and providers need to be aware that digital can either provide an additional tool for communication, or can be another barrier between the patient and the healthcare professional. 

The Accenture report states:

Better experiences can improve engagement with the healthcare system. Our survey revealed that only one out of three people said they did not have a negative experience with a medical provider, pharmacy or hospital. So what does that mean for the remaining two-thirds? People have had a variety of negative healthcare experiences such as, their visit was not efficient (22%) or the medical advice was not helpful (19%). 

Nearly half (44%) of the people reporting negative experiences felt stressed or upset by these experiences, and there were additional consequences: Slightly more than one-third (34%) switched providers or treatments or were less likely to seek medical care the next time they needed it. Others chose to not keep up with their treatment or they never picked up their prescription because of these poor experiences. Only 12% of people said that the negative experience didn ́t affect them in any way, implying that 88% of people affected respond to an unsatisfactory healthcare experience in a way that limits healthcare effectiveness. 

And the most important factors in a positive experience with a medical provider? 55% of people said the key was a medical provider that explains a condition and treatment clearly; a medical provider that listens, understands a patient's needs and provides emotional support; and 35% said well-coordinated care and communications between medical providers and their personnel. 

Right at the bottom of the list was a medical provider who uses digital technologies to optimize the experience, with just 10% of respondents indicating it as a priority. 

The Accenture report notes: 

The healthcare system used technology to accomplish great feats for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet will these gains last? People ́s sentiments and behaviors provide no clear answer.

While many advances were in reaction to challenges brought forth by the pandemic, there is room to build on these gains to work in revolutionary ways that put people at the center of care. The signals we saw in our research revealed the need to embrace digital technologies that support health management and healthcare access, deliver better, emphatic experiences and facilitate greater trust.

Technology can help solve many issues, but the benefits of using digital to access and manage one's care are not always rated important by people or considered among the first options for care. Members of the healthcare ecosystem must present information about benefits more clearly to boost adoption and demonstrate to people how technology can support a more human healthcare experience. Ideally, digital technologies would support a cohesive experience, from virtual channels used at home or on the move to the doctor's office and back, and they can help providers to spend more time caring for patients.

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