This content is part of the Essential Guide: Providers adjusting to greater use of social media in healthcare
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New patient engagement strategies needed to capitalize on opportunity

Many factors are driving an increased focus on strategies to engage patients. New thinking is needed to make the most of these opportunities.

New technologies can play an important role in engaging patients in their own care, but providers need to be thoughtful about how they implement these tools to ensure they get the most bang for their buck.

At the World Health Care Congress in National Harbor, Md., Charles Saunders, M.D., CEO of Emerging Businesses at Aetna Inc., said a number of factors are driving providers to consider new patient engagement strategies. Meaningful use provisions, patient expectations and demands for quality improvement all play a role.

We want to make sure that you have the privacy, but also access. There are ways that we can strike that balance where we can protect confidentiality but also support people's health.

Mary Grealy,
president, Healthcare Leadership Council

Social caregiving is one of the fastest-growing areas of patient engagement. For example, some providers are finding ways to message all members of a patient's family to allow caregivers to sign up to perform various health-related tasks for the patient, Saunders said. "The community is stronger than the individual," he said, and letting more members of a community help in the delivery of care can lead to improvements in lifestyle habits and medication adherence.

Robert Kaplan, director of the office of behavioral and social science research at the National Institutes of Health, said there are many devices out there that are changing the way people communicate with each other. Smartphones, with their myriad applications, allow for rapid transfer of information from the patient to the doctor. This means the patient doesn't necessarily have to be in the doctor's office to receive care.

But Kaplan warned that a lot of the research on patient engagement strategies involving smartphones failed to deliver meaningful results. Mobile medical applications always don't always work as intended, particularly when it comes to changing people's behavior around smoking and eating habits. It appears to him that in many cases, app developers haven't reviewed the scientific literature on how to effect behavioral changes. So, providers need to gauge for themselves how likely an app or mobile device is to engage patients before making a major part of their practice. "When you look at this, it's not so much about the devices and applications," he said.

Panelist Rain Henderson, deputy director of the Clinton Health Matters Initiative at the William J. Clinton Foundation, added another cautionary note. The kind of people who download mobile apps tend to already be motivated to improve their health, she said. Therefore, engagement strategies that rely on getting people to download mobile apps might reach only people who are already interested in engaging, leaving a large portion of the patient population untouched.

For engagement strategies to have an impact on an entire patient population, providers need to understand what motivates patients who aren't already motivated. "It's about how do you meet people where they are," Henderson said. "Once people have information, how do you move people along the health spectrum?"

As providers are looking for new ways to engage patients, they will have to understand all relevant privacy laws. HIPAA places some restrictions on how providers communicate with patients, said Mary Grealy, president of the Healthcare Leadership Council. For example, sending protected health information back and forth via unencrypted email is a significant security risk.

Some providers, however, err too far on the side of caution, Grealy said, and avoid some forms of engagement that could benefit patients. Providers need to understand where the line is so they can take advantage of email and social media to interact with their patients and not put sensitive data at risk.

"It does a disservice to the consumer to use privacy laws to avoid doing things that can improve health," Grealy said. "We want to make sure that you have the privacy, but also access. There are ways that we can strike that balance where we can protect confidentiality but also support people's health."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Ed Burns, news writer, or contact @EdBurnsTT on Twitter.

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