The Exciting Potential of Communication Apps


Messaging technology keeps patients informed, improves outcomes and satisfies staff.

TAILORED TECH To ensure your communication app provides relevant info, spend time customizing the technology to your specific patient population.

A week before surgery, the patients of William Ryan Spiker, MD, a board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon with University of Utah Health in Salt Lake City, start receiving daily text messages about their upcoming procedures. The messages spell out such things as the list of medications they need to stop taking seven days before surgery or remind them to coordinate home care for their recovery. These automated reminders continue until the night before surgery when a final pre-op text reminds patients to go NPO after midnight. The texts resume after surgery with messages based specifically on keeping patients informed about common post-op concerns and issues.

Dr. Spiker believes mobile technology and patient communication apps play a critical role in improving patient care. “If you care about patient adherence to post-op medication protocols, patient satisfaction and quality outcomes,” says he says, “you have to care about the technology that impacts those things.”

Evaluating your options

While most surgical leaders understand the benefits of using patient communication apps in theory, applying the technology in practice often isn’t so cut-and-dried. After all, there’s no shortage of patient communication and engagement apps on the market that promise to do everything under the sun. So how do you decide which platform will work best for your facility’s specific needs?

“The key is understanding your opportunities, and then finding the technology that can help you achieve them,” says Dr. Spiker.

For instance, sending patients constant updates about next steps leading up to their procedures and messages about how they should expect to feel after surgery prevents them from bombarding your busy providers with questions or, worse, seeking unnecessary follow-up care. “Preventing even one percent of your patients from going to the ER to have their questions and concerns addressed can save the healthcare system thousands of dollars,” says Dr. Spiker.

As a starting point, consider vendors you already have business relationships with and that have staying power or clout in the industry, says Brittney Wilson, BSN, RN, founder of The Nerdy Nurse, a nursing and technology blog, and co-founder of Health Media Academy, a consulting firm helping healthcare professionals and facilities improve their digital footprints.

“For example, your EMR vendor may have an communications-based add-on that would meet your needs and already interface with your current platform,” says Ms. Wilson. “Often, because you already have their main product in place, an add-on costs less than installing a new and separate system.” Plus, she adds, it’ll save you the time, money and stress of integrating a third-party system into your current workflow.

Must-have features of patient communication systems vary greatly from facility to facility, but Ms. Wilson recommends a platform that offers the following:

• Integration into your main EMR system. Convenience is key because, as Ms. Wilson says, “no one likes logging into another system if they don’t have to.”

• A user-friendly interface for both patients and staff. From an aesthetic standpoint, “If it looks like Apple made it, that’s a good start,” says Ms. Wilson.

• Robust reporting and auditing capabilities.

Ms. Wilson advises you to exercise caution with newer vendors and look for companies with a proven track record in the healthcare tech marketplace. “Startups are fantastic, and the patient communication space is an area where many have cast their net,” she says. “Unfortunately, many startups fail, and your facility would have to deal with negative financial and morale impacts if the vendor you selected went out of business.”


Customization is key

TIME WELL SPENT Automated text messages keep your already busy front desk team from fielding endless calls from patients with common questions or concerns.

If you want your communication app to work as seamlessly as possible, you’ll likely have to do some work on the backend to customize the technology. The initial text messages Dr. Spiker’s patients receive are tailored to the specific procedure they’re scheduled to undergo, and are generally short and basic. However, the messages are structured in a way that allows more interactive patients to easily access additional information.

“The text messages include a couple of initial sentences, and then offer them the opportunity to watch a video or link to more resources about the their procedure and their pre-op care,” says Dr. Spiker. “There’s an opportunity for patients to dial in how much info they want and engage and interact with the technology on a daily basis.”

In addition to customizing the communication before rolling it out to patients, Dr. Spiker’s facility made some significant tweaks to the messaging based on the type of info his patients wanted to receive from the text platform — information he obtained through a formal patient study. “When we first launched the platform, we basically guessed at what type of information patients would want,” says Dr. Spiker. “We were giving them what we thought they wanted.”

To eliminate the guesswork, the facility began sending patients home from surgery with a journal and asked them to jot down what they were worried about and the questions they had during the initial days of recovery. Then, the facility enlisted the help of a statistician to group the responses and create a timeline for when the most frequent post-op questions and concerns took place. While this may sound like a major undertaking, you don’t need a huge sample size for a study of this kind to work, according to Dr. Spiker. “Even with 20 or 30 patients, you can start to get a trend of when you should provide certain types of data points to patients,” he says.

Another key to successfully implementing any patient communication platform is introducing patients to the technology early in the surgical process. When cases are scheduled, make sure your physicians mention the communication tool to patients and give them some basic information about how it works. That way, when your scheduler connects with them to finalize the details of the surgery date, your use of communication technology won’t be a strange concept. Patients will be comfortable with the idea of using the platform because it has already been discussed during the initial interaction with their surgeon, says Dr. Spiker.

A productive way to connect

Dr. Spiker says his facility’s text messaging app has been almost universally adapted by patients. “We’re seeing that 95-plus percent of patients are excited about enrolling,” he says. “Occasionally, patients tell us they don’t want to receive additional text messages. But overall, that’s pretty rare.”

The acceptance of communication apps among Dr. Spiker’s patients speaks to the tremendous opportunity the technology offers. “I think the take-home message is that patients are enthusiastic about texting and mobile messaging as a communication tool,” says Dr. Spiker. “It provides real opportunities for facilities to improve patient satisfaction and the care they provide without sacrificing valuable time and staffing resources.” OSM

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