Meeting patients where they are—increasing engagement by unlocking the digital front door

Photo of Aleksandra JędruchAleksandra Jędruch
September 23, 2021
... min read

Every aspect of our lives is impacted by technology, and COVID-19 accelerated the digitization of many crucial day-to-day tasks. Although we can make a bank transfer in a matter of seconds and call a friend for free on the other side of the globe, we still cannot use this quick and effortless approach to tackle our own healthcare. Given our modern ability to access digital information and research, there should be a better way to help patients and doctors connect, in order to make the best and most informed decisions possible. And yet, there is a way: the digital front door.

At a glance:
Digital front door is a strategy designed to engage patients at specific touchpoints of their health journey. Illustration by Magdalena Kościańska.

Traditional patient access points

Let’s take a closer look at a typical healthcare scenario. Katie has a painful bulge in her stomach. She googles it and then waits a couple of days to see if it goes away. But the bulge is still there, so she calls her general practitioner (GP) and makes an appointment. She waits a few more days for her visit, and finally (after 2 hours in the waiting room) enters the GP’s office only to find out that this case requires a surgical consultation as her GP suspects she has a hernia. So she leaves the office, makes another appointment, this time with the surgeon. She waits a week or two (if lucky) for the appointment. After seeing a surgeon she’s directed to the hospital. In this scenario, Katie has wasted her time, money, and some sanity. Conversely, a patient goes to the otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat surgeon) for what turns out to be an ear infection, which could have easily been treated by their GP.

The average GP visit in the US costs around $100 to $250, but visiting a specialist costs on average more than $250. So for ear infection treatment, a patient could pay $100 to $350, depending on their patient journey. Also, directing patients to teleconsultation instead of in-person visits (when appropriate) is proven to be cost-effective. In fact, £3 billion ($4.1 billion) could be saved with effective patient prescreening. This means, being directed to the right level of care and the right specialist can save not only the patient’s money, but also the providers’. The good news is that innovative solutions can help bridge the gap between patient expectations and healthcare operations.

Before diving into the digital front door concept, let’s take a moment to look at traditional healthcare front door examples. We’re talking about making phone calls (often with busy lines) or visiting a doctor’s office and waiting to make an appointment. We’re talking about having to make 911 calls after 6 PM because the doctor’s office is closed and visiting the overcrowded emergency department as a last resort. Of course, these approaches can be useful, however, a study from UnitedHealth estimated that about two-thirds of total annual ER visits could be treated safely and effectively in lower acuity settings. How can we change this pattern? What if there was another way for patients to engage with healthcare providers?

Out with the old?

Because of this difficult-to-navigate and inaccessible environment, many North Americans reserve trips to the doctor until they feel really sick. But now, with emerging wellness products, apps, and education, they are taking a more proactive approach. People are ready for change.

But adopting a new healthcare approach—a digital front door—doesn’t mean completely erasing the old system. Rather than a massive overhaul, it’s about optimizing the patient journey with technology we already have to create user-friendly entry points.

What is a digital front door in healthcare?

When considering the ideal patient journey, ask yourself: what's the gap between their first symptoms and their first use of your healthcare services? How do people access your solutions? Are they satisfied with the current flow? How can your organization gain a competitive advantage? At what stage do you lose patients? The digital front door concept emerged from the need and technological readiness to answer these questions. A digital front door is literally an entry point where patients have a chance to seek help first through validated information and then from healthcare providers. It is also a strategy designed to engage patients at specific touchpoints of their journey, and facilitate access to healthcare at any time or place, 24/7 (with an Internet connection), using technology customers use anyway, like smartphones, tablets, and laptops.

With an ever-growing list of digital entry points—including symptom checkers, triage tools, telehealth, and patient portals—comes a new opportunity to engage patients, drive their satisfaction, and optimize how they access healthcare services, resulting in better productivity and cost optimization.

Picture showing webinar presenters


Digital Front Doors for Healthcare Organizations 101

Why do we need healthcare digital front doors right now?

We reviewed a more technical definition of the health digital front door above. Now let’s explore what’s possible in real life and why we need it. The digital front door can involve a broad selection of solutions. We will elaborate on these in our upcoming webinar, but just to help you visualize the concept, these can be triage tools, telehealth services, symptom checkers, patient portals, and the like.

These solutions give your patients reliable information on their health, help them become engaged in health-related activities, and direct them to the appropriate care when necessary. They also provide a consistent user experience, regardless of the outcome, be it digital or in-person care. Remember Katie from the beginning of this article? Imagine if her story went the other way. Katie has this painful bulge in her belly. She enters her health provider’s website or app and uses a data-driven symptom-checking tool, such as Symptomate, to make an initial symptom assessment. She gets a result that indicates she needs to consult a surgeon within 24 hours (triage level) as she might have a hernia. She then immediately uses a health management app (Walgreens with its FindCare app, for instance) and books an in-person appointment. She speaks with a surgeon who confirms the hernia, and is directed to the hospital. Her patient journey in this case is much quicker.

Now, this kind of digital-first engagement brings benefits to all stakeholders involved. For healthcare systems, these solutions help keep up with competitors and even achieve technological advances. Take Azure Health Bot by Microsoft as an example, which empowers healthcare organizations to build and deploy an AI-powered, compliant, conversational healthcare experience at scale. What’s more, they can support optimizing current resources, meaning staff, budget, and time. Digital front doors can also be an excellent way to broaden health providers’ setups, supporting existing patient engagement activities and technologies, and improving traditional gateways.

For doctors and healthcare workers, such solutions can help improve informed decision-making and decrease the burden of paperwork. A good example here is a patient intake form with AI technology. It collects patient symptoms and assesses them to propose an initial evidence assessment. It can also be integrated with existing Electronic Health Records (EHR) to enhance patient data collection. Triage solutions, on the other hand, facilitate directing patients to the doctor with the appropriate medical specialty, unclogging emergency departments.

Finally, for patients, digital front doors mean reliable and data-driven health support 24/7, in many cases free of charge. They also mean better care in general, supporting disease prevention instead of reactionary care, and improved access with one seamless health journey for customers and their relatives. Many digital front door solutions are also built with accessibility in mind, addressing gaps in health equity.

Are patients ready for digital front doors?

The data says yes. According to the Accenture Patient Benchmark Survey from 2019, 77% of patients say it’s important to book appointments after hours or on weekends, and 75% say their health providers can't book appointments during this time. Also, McKinsey’s research shows that although healthcare consumers prefer digital tools, just one-quarter of them currently use them because there aren’t many healthcare websites and apps that do a good job. Hence, there’s a demand that health systems don’t keep up with. These are only two examples showing that health systems need to change their decision-making processes to become more patient-centric. Such an approach involves considering what patients really want and need, along with implementing patient support strategies that help them benefit the most from the available healthcare. Digital transformation allows meeting patients exactly where they are as healthcare consumers and makes their user experience seamless and stress-free. And we’re not only talking about the new generation of patients. More and more older people are adopting new technologies, especially now, because of the pandemic restrictions.

The second part of this article, covers challenges of implementing digital front doors and how to overcome them. We also elaborate on digital front door examples and best practices of implementing them into your organization.

We invite you to watch the recording from our webinar, Digital Front Doors for Healthcare Organizations 101, during which you can learn how industry leaders Adam Walker, Senior Product Management Lead at Microsoft, Sailaja Vishnubhotla, Director of Product Management at Walgreens, and Dr. Eng. Roberto Sicconi, Co-Founder and Chief Science Officer at Infermedica are using digital entry points to improve healthcare access and outcomes.

Picture showing webinar presenters


Digital Front Doors for Healthcare Organizations 101