Human communication

Dear Digital Healthcare: Let’s Do It Better

Digital transformation has increased access to healthcare, but quality and consistency are lagging behind. A human touch – and innovative thinking – can get us where we need to be.

We weren’t prepared. But can you blame us?

The healthcare industry has gone digital faster than anyone could have expected. Digital health options like telemedicine and online pharmacies existed before the pandemic. At some point, they would naturally have grown in importance. COVID-19 has forced us to turn a decades-long transformation into two years.

A recent report from McKinsey & Company shows that by mid-2021, telehealth visits were 38 times more common than before the pandemic. Telemedicine and online pharmacy have their merits. Digital options are known to increase healthcare access and convenience for patients.

The flexibility is excellent. Equally important is the quality and consistency of care. The same McKinsey report shows that only 32% of doctors – the very ones who administer care online – believe that telehealth can improve the patient experience.

Other industries like banking and retail can get away with more automation and fewer humans. Health is different. Patients need human expertise, empathy and guidance as they navigate between drug prescriptions, home tests and other remote treatments that affect their health. Every healthcare transaction involves a complex web of actors. Patients need a vote of confidence from someone they trust.

Our industry’s digital alternatives have become too transactional and too impersonal. We shouldn’t just be clicking buttons, chatting with bots, and uploading photos (without any real human interaction) when making important personal decisions about our health. It’s time to reinject trust, expertise and a human touch into digital healthcare.

We can do better. It’s not an easy task, but the healthcare industry needs to make some changes to keep up with the digital overhaul that will only continue.

The evolution of health care

Organizations across all industries have had to expand their digital offerings due to the pandemic. Many of these results have been positive. Many people prefer to deposit a check from their cell phone, take a workout class on an app instead of going to the gym, and skip the line at the DMV with online documents.

Digital health platforms can rely on similar solutions to automate some outdated processes. A Zoom call can replace an in-person visit for a cold. Refilling a prescription online can save you a trip to the pharmacy.

Sometimes it’s not that easy. Every healthcare transaction includes many more stakeholders than most industries. Even something as routine as a home test includes touch points with a primary care physician, insurance agent, pharmacy, testing clinic, specialists, and support staff.

Maybe a patient doesn’t understand how to take their medication or administer a home test. Rather than arranging another telemedicine visit, they are more likely to skip treatment altogether. Medication non-adherence is a huge problem. It costs the healthcare system $300 billion a year, according to the Healthcare Financing Report – and that figure is set to rise with the rise of remote care. Less than 30% of prescriptions are taken correctly, according to the report.

A rise in digital health has removed the small interactions that build trust with patients. We have lost the little advice a pharmacist gives you at the counter or the reassuring smile of a nurse practitioner during a health check-up.

Health is personal. Sometimes it’s confusing. We cannot simply copy digital transformation trends from other industries and expect to provide a compassionate and consistent standard of care.

Lack of patient engagement

When I log into my provider’s digital health platform, the Google search bar is never far away. As we move to online options, it can be tempting for patients to try and do their own research. This distances them from the options available within their network.

We also cannot escape data tracking across all platforms. If I Google “Continuous Glucose Tracking” on my computer, it’s likely that ads for glucose monitoring technology will start appearing on Facebook and Instagram. I do not know the reliability of these advertisements and services, nor their motivation and incentive to click. It’s information overload, and much more confusing than professional advice.

In addition to a drop in reliability, we also lost some continuity in the digital health system. Before the pandemic, many patients went straight to the pharmacy to have their prescriptions filled after a doctor’s visit.

The online nature of digital offerings increases the chances of abandonment between these stages. Instead of just showing up, I may need to switch from my supplier’s platform to an online pharmaceutical site, with a different login. There is less liability involved. If I get my prescription, I haven’t had that key interaction at the pharmacy counter to answer my last minute questions and influence my commitment to treatment.

How can the healthcare industry do better?

The health industry is not too far behind. Keeping up with the explosive growth of digital health was always going to be difficult. A little collaboration and innovation will help us adapt:

1. Provide connections between platforms and services

Healthcare leaders have been talking about interoperability for a decade. A fully connected health data network is a tall order, so let’s start small.

Perhaps we can learn from the “Google search and Instagram advertising” example. Health platforms can have the same connectivity. If I get a prescription on a telemedicine service, I should be influenced to fill that prescription when I get to an online pharmacy site. We need to reduce the potential for default by clearly outlining the right steps for patients.

2. Create an industry standard for digital care

There’s a lot of information there. Patients should not have to discern for themselves the validity of a source.

I envision some sort of certification or organization that lets patients know which platforms provide them with valid, independent sources of information. It may be as simple as a professional cohort of trusted brands. We should be able to spot a logo on a digital health platform and immediately know what kind of advice we are getting.

3. Leverage the power of nurses for real-time communication

According to Gallup, nursing has been the most trusted profession for 20 years.

Many patient support specialists at pharmaceutical companies use nurse helplines and other third-party services. They analyze patient data, identify patients at risk of non-adherence, and request help with their prescriptions. These nurses are extremely efficient, but only when they are able to communicate with the patient. Phone tags and missed calls are common.

There is a better way to leverage the expertise of nurses. Integrating a nurse chat tool into digital health platforms enables real-time communication. Rather than waiting for a phone call, patients can interact with a nurse while questions are fresh in the patient’s mind. It also ensures that you catch the patient at the time of their highest intention (i.e. when they are already thinking about their treatment) – rather than calling them later in the middle of a work day. or a family dinner.

Keep adapting

Health care contains more complexity – and requires more compassion – than any industry. Combining human expertise with rapid digital transformation doesn’t always seem natural. We’re not where we need to be, but a few steps toward collaboration and standardization will increase the quality and consistency of care for patients around the world.


About Michael Sheley

Michael Sheeley is the co-founder and CEO of Nurse-1-1, a HIPAA-compliant live chat platform that connects patients to a nationwide network of over 2,000 NPs, RNs, AMs, and MDs. Previously, he was co-founder and COO of RunKeeper, a mobile health and fitness company acquired by ASICS.