The healthcare sector has been slow in adopting technology. However, times are changing, and an increasing number of patients want to benefit from digitalization. According to a recent survey by Accenture, 60% of respondents prefer to use technology for patient-provider communication. Consequently, digital healthcare solutions are gaining popularity. Particularly, this change is reflected in the growth of the patient engagement market. The global patient engagement solutions market size was valued at $15.1 billion in 2020, and it is estimated to expand at a CAGR of 21.4% by 2028. The US patient engagement technology market, meanwhile, is expected to reach $9.4 billion by 2023.
So, how software for patient engagement works? Which options do you have if you decide to deploy such a tool at your healthcare facility? And what is the cost of digital patient engagement solutions? Our latest article will shed light on these (and many more!) questions.
Introduction to patient engagement solutions
What is patient engagement, and why digitalize it?
Patient engagement is a partnership between a patient and their healthcare providers team where both sides share information and search for the best treatment options.
It is opposed to the conventional rigid system where the doctor prescribes one treatment course, and the patient feels free to either accept or ignore it instead of attempting to discuss other options. Nowadays, the healthcare sector is turning to technology to increase patient engagement in general and handle COVID-19 in particular. Using technology, doctors can reach their patients anytime and anywhere, foresee and mitigate deterioration in patients’ conditions, and provide helpful information at the right time. These goals can be achieved with the help of patient engagement software — an application or a set of interconnected systems designed to facilitate communication between patients and healthcare providers, offer educational resources, and otherwise manage the patient-doctor relationship.
Standard features supported in patient engagement tools
If you want to purchase/build a patient engagement solution for your hospital, here is a list of basic features your system can offer:
- Registering new patients and managing their medical history online
- Scheduling and rescheduling appointments
- Sending automatic appointment reminders either via text or voice messages
- Supporting patient education using customized content
- Facilitating online billing and payments
Benefits of having a patient engagement system:
- Minimizing no-shows with appointment reminders and effortless rescheduling
- Establishing loyalty as patients fill in post-appointment surveys and doctors get the chance to adapt to individual patients’ needs
- Attracting new patients as some of these solutions support marketing campaigns
- Improving patient compliance as they feel involved in the decision-making process
- Enhancing communication between patients and their healthcare providers
The hidden cost of not having digital patient engagement solutions in place
Poor patient engagement strategies have a drastic impact on hospitals and the healthcare sector in general — and that’s not to mention patients’ outcomes.
Here are some of the consequences of not keeping patients engaged:
- Diminished patient flows
According to Puneet Maheshwari, the man behind the DocASAP patient access and engagement platforms, “Today’s consumers expect companies to anticipate their needs and tailor their messages accordingly, leading patients to expect the same level of personalization from their healthcare providers.” Maheshwari’s words are echoed by a recent survey, which claims that 75% of US consumers wish for a more customized experience when it comes to receiving healthcare services. If one clinic does not offer it, patients will find the one that does. Consequently, hospitals that ignore patient engagement might lose their patients. Furthermore, improving patient engagement has an economic agenda. Aaron Martin, Chief Digital Officer at Providence, describes the problem as follows: “Engagement in healthcare has two benefits. One is you really start to build a sticky relationship with your patients. There’s also a big economic opportunity in that if you’re entering into risk-based contracts, if you help build a healthier population, your economics are much, much better as a provider.”
- Less optimistic patient outcomes
Adults who are disengaged and refuse to play an active role in their health are less likely to adhere to the prescribed treatment plans. According to recent studies, medication non-adherence affects up to 50% of patients with chronic conditions. Skipping medication has severe consequences and can even result in death. About 125,000 patients die annually in the US due to medication non-adherence.
- Rising healthcare expenses
The lack of patients’ involvement in their own health and wellbeing leads to an increase in healthcare costs. As people avoid regular medical checkups and ignore their chronic condition management plans, they often fail to catch the early signs of diseases and contact providers when it is already too late, which leads to a prolonged and more expensive treatment. The US spent around $10,966 per person on healthcare in 2019. This is almost double of what other developed countries paid on average.
Source: Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker
Technology increases patient engagement. Here’s proof
Tools for patient engagement leverage innovative technology to improve user experience. Many organizations are already deploying technologies to reach out to patients at least 12 times a year, with AI and IoT being the most promising solutions in their toolbox.
How can IoT improve patient engagement?
Already back in 2018, 60% of healthcare organizations worldwide deployed IoT in their facilities. One of the most prominent applications of IoT in healthcare is remote patient monitoring. Patients use connected devices to capture relevant medical information and share it with their doctors. For example, IoT devices can collect data on vital signs, such as heartbeat, glucose levels, weight, mood swings, and sleeping patterns. All this data is transmitted to the provider, allowing them to catch on early signs of change in patients’ physical condition and overall wellbeing. When patients are directly involved in tracking their medical data, they become mindful of any changes in their current condition, which will make them more compliant and eager to participate in treatment options selection.
How can AI improve patient engagement in healthcare?
Here’s what Kevin Pawl, Senior Director of Patient Access at Boston Children’s Hospital, says about AI:
“You’re not calling a hospital with the joy of going on vacation or going on a trip or staying in a hotel, but it would be awful nice if the service and the experience were similar. That’s what we were trying to achieve as we tap into artificial intelligence.”
AI solutions in healthcare can increase patient engagement in a variety of ways:
- Employing risk assessment strategies. AI can go through patient data and identify patients with a high risk of developing a particular disease and predict their healthcare needs. Based on this information, physicians reach out to high-risk patients and invite them for additional screenings or suggest a personalized preventive/curing treatment plan.
- Relying on AI-powered chatbots for 24/7 communication. Calling a hospital can be daunting as patients are put on hold for prolonged periods of time. Intelligent chatbots can serve as the first line of response by filtering patient calls, answering simple questions (e.g., where is the parking), pointing patients to valuable resources, or redirecting them to a human provider. Chatbots respond to patients at any time round the clock, offer consistent responses, and can be easily retrained.
- Understanding patient behavior. Providers engage with patients through intelligent mediums that can analyze and understand patients’ behavior patterns. This helps medical staff to come up with a personalized treatment plan tailored to an individual patient’s needs. For example, AiCure developed a platform that leverages AI to predict patient behavior throughout their clinical trial journey.
Types of patient engagement software and how much it costs to build them
If you decide on acquiring a patient engagement software solution, you will have three options: off-the-shelf, content management system (CMS)-based, or fully customized solutions. While choosing among the different options, consider the following criteria:
- Are you willing to adapt your internal processes?
- Is there a need to connect your new system with legacy equipment and applications?
- How much support do you expect from your vendor?
- How much are you able to pour in as an initial investment?
- What is your current practice size, and are you planning to expand?
- Do you intend to offer new services?
- How much time can you dedicate to research, development, deployment, customization?
- Do you need full ownership of this product?
Now let us weigh in on the advantages and downsides of different types of patient engagement solutions and assess their costs.
Off-the-shelf patient engagement software
There are a plethora of patient engagement solutions readily available for the healthcare sector. Hospitals can choose from a wide array of features and pricing models. Some patient engagement solution providers offer predefined types of subscriptions, while other companies give clients the liberty to select the features they want. Every patient engagement platform has its primary focus. Some are specialized in appointment scheduling, some on EHR integration, and some on e-prescriptions. The monthly subscription can vary from $12/month for a basic feature to $350/month and beyond for more comprehensive solutions. And of course, there are additional customization, support, and licensing costs to consider. The table below presents some examples of available patient engagement solutions at different price ranges.
Characteristics of off-the-shelf patient engagement tools:
- This is the fastest option from order to deployment
- No need to procure any additional technology as these solutions typically run in the cloud
- Initial investments are significantly lower than in other options
- In case you want to expand your practice and offer extra services, scaling your software will be easier if your current vendor has plugins corresponding to your new services. Otherwise, diversifying your operations will be a challenge
- No ownership of your platform
- If you require a unique set of features, you will need to do your research to find the right vendor
- You might need to adapt your internal workflow to match the patient engagement solution unless your vendor shows flexibility
- There is a risk that the vendor will discontinue supporting your version
Best suited for medical practices that:
- Are small in size with up to 10 doctors; also, the option works well for individual practitioners
- Have limited initial funds
- Employ internal processes that can be easily adapted and integrated with the new solution
- Will deploy the patient engagement system as stand-alone without integrating it with other applications
CMS-based patient engagement software
These solutions are custom developed using existing content management platforms, such as Wix and WordPress. These platforms allow building most of the basic functionality that patient experience solutions require, such as patient registration, appointment scheduling and rescheduling, patient-provider communications, patient education, and even EMR/EHR integration. With CMS-based solutions, you can either opt for a hosted platform (Wix, WordPress.com) or download the open-source version of WordPress (WordPress.org); the latter gives you more control over your system, but it is more expensive as you need to hire software engineers and designers to help you customize it. Hosted platforms might look like a more lucrative and cost-efficient solution.
However, their monthly plans seldom cover maintenance, and you'll have to pay for third-party plugins and extensions separately. As a result, this option offers minimal functionality. That is why we'll focus only on self-hosted CMSs below.
The costs of developing a CMS-based solution for patient engagement can fluctuate around $30k-$35k for systems with the basic functionality, such as appointment scheduling, online payment, and secure patient-provider communication. Such a solution is typically developed and deployed within two months.
If you want to enhance the basic solution with new functionality, you can either purchase and integrate third-party plugins, or develop custom plugins. Building a custom WordPress plugin will cost you $2k-$5k for a simplistic extension that adds one minor feature to your existing solution. A more complex plugin with an extended functionality will cost up to $20k. Meanwhile, a cumbersome plugin that requires in-depth analysis can easily add up to $45k and more.
Characteristics of CMS-based patient engagement tools:
- You can quickly add new functionality with existing and custom plugins
- The underlying CMS might limit your system’s scalability
- Hospitals have ownership of the final products, but if they make changes to the CMS, it will be challenging to update it when the next version is out
- There is a need to invest in technology and support personnel
Best suited for medical practices that:
- Need a quick solution without overpaying
- Have no immediate plans of expansion, as scaling CMS-based solutions can be difficult
Custom-built patient engagement solutions
Such a solution is developed specifically for your organization to cover your unique needs and cater to your internal processes. You will have full ownership of the final product. The vendor or your team will customize this software following any relevant changes in your organization. Unlike CMS-based solutions, custom-built platforms are developed from scratch, which gives you the freedom of choice when it comes to technology. Together with the vendor, you can select the web development framework, the database type (e.g., MySQL, MS SQL, etc.), front-end technology, and data visualization format. This type of patient engagement software is easy to integrate with third-party systems because you are in full control of the code. One example of a custom-built solution is this automated appointment scheduler that integrates doctors' schedules into the EMR system and facilitates appointment management.
Another example is this AI-based solution that manages data of patients diagnosed with cancer and assists doctors in developing personalized treatments. It also contains a social platform that allows patients to share their experience and support each other. The cost of a custom-built patient engagement system starts from around $50k. Under this price tag, you will get the basic patient engagement features, such as appointment scheduling, patient feedback, billing, and payment, as well as a simple chatbot integrated from third-party services and basic analytics. Such a solution will take at least three months to develop.
More complex patient engagement tools will cost at least three times more. For example, if you want a solution that offers all the basic functionality in addition to connected wearable devices that help monitor patients' condition, intelligent chatbots, and an AI-driven analytical system that can perform risk estimates for individual patients, that will cost you at least $120k-$150k.
Characteristics of custom-built patient engagement solutions:
- Requires substantial investments in the application itself and the underlying technology
- The most time-consuming option
- Full ownership of the resulting solution
- Extra costs on support personnel
- High scalability
- There is no need to change your internal processes as this custom solution will fit them well
- Flexibility with integrating any new services the hospital is willing to include in its practice
- You are not bound by any technology and can choose what suits your needs best
Best suited for medical practices that:
- Offer a diversified set of services
- Plan to expand in size and services
- Can pull off a significant initial investment
- Have rigid workflows that can’t be easily adapted
- Need to integrate the new software with existing systems
Some providers are still skeptical about deploying patient experience software. They fear that elderly patients will not be open to navigating digital spaces. Sometimes doctors don’t want to admit they can use help communicating with patients. If providers used healthcare software in the past and had a bad experience, this can also cause resentment. Despite all the challenges, the organizations who tried patient engagement technology can attest to its considerable benefits:
- Offering continuous 24/7 patient support
- Assisting doctors with repetitive tasks and keeping them on top of patients' health issues
- Keeping the overall healthcare costs down
If you've decided to procure a patient engagement solution, you have three options to choose from. You can either purchase an existing solution, build your software based on an existing content management system, or develop your solution from scratch without being restricted by any technology or workflow. Every option has its benefits and drawbacks. What suits you the most will depend on your current processes, desired features, budget, and future plans of your practice.