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Faced with the need to improve patient satisfaction and reduce unnecessary delays in care, hospitals and medical practices are using telehealth and mHealth tools to create a virtual waiting room.

With the COVID-19 crisis putting the kibosh on crowds, hospitals are turning to telehealth and mHealth to take the wait out of healthcare.

The crowded, clamorous, stuffy, sniffly waiting room has long been the scourge of healthcare, a sign of both inconvenienced patients and overworked providers. It’s here that patients are asked to announce their presence, fill out forms and check their insurance, while staff sort through the data to match them to the right provider at the right time slot.

Prodded by the pandemic, health systems are now using mHealth apps, online portals and telehealth platforms to handle those administrative tasks, so that a patient arriving at the hospital or doctor’s office is seen and treated as quickly as possible.

“When you think of healthcare from the perspective of a claim, there’s a lot of hands touching the data,” says Jay Roszhart, MHA, FACHE, president of the Memorial Health System Ambulatory Group, rolling off a list of services that includes scheduling, registration, check-in, insurance verification, coding, billing and appointment reminders – all potentially handled by a different person or department. “That’s just an incredible number of hands in the pot.”

To improve that process, the Illinois-based health system recently launched a virtual waiting room, complete with AI-powered chatbots that help both patient and provider collect and sort all that data before the patient sets foot in a doctor’s office.

“When you’re dealing with (a pandemic), one of the things you realize very quickly is that you have these waiting rooms where people congregate … and fill out forms,” Roszhart says. “That really is not the ideal experience and it certainly isn’t a safe experience.”

Roszhart says a connected health platform that encompasses several tools – including chatbots, apps and portals – “takes away the mundane and repeatable tasks” that dominate the waiting room and delay care, not to mention taking time away from doctors and nurses who’d rather be dealing with patients than dealing with paperwork.

“And you’re making the experience much more pleasant for the patient,” he adds.

Memorial Health is partnering with California-based LifeLink on the telehealth platform, which uses chatbots to guide the conversation between patient and doctor’s office. LifeLink is one of dozens of companies in the space, offering virtual services to health systems, hospitals, clinics, practices and doctor’s offices looking to digitize all the tasks that take place before the actual doctor-patient encounter.

The opportunities are numerous. A medical practice or clinic that can push these services online enables patients to check in virtually and arrive at the exact time that they’re scheduled to meet with a doctor, with all the clinical and insurance information automatically added to the medical record. A hospital or urgent care clinic, meanwhile, can use the platform to speed up care coordination, making sure the right doctors are in place to treat patients coming through the ER.

These services have come under the spotlight during the COVID-19 crisis, when many hospitals have restricted access to their ERs and smaller clinics and practices have closed their waiting rooms. Faced with the need to diagnose and treat patients with the minimum of in-person interaction, they’re using telehealth and mHealth tools to triage patients outside the hospital, even in the home.

On the back end, these platforms need to be interoperable, so that the right information is connected to the right patient at the point of care. On the front end, the technology needs to be easy to use, intuitive and friendly, so that the patient feels welcome.

“You have to design this to give patients a pleasant experience,” says Roszhart.

He says Memorial Health chose a chatbot with the idea of making the process more human, “with the development of a conversation that doesn’t sound like you’re talking to a robot.” The platform must also integrate with other services at key points in the conversation to enter data and kick back to a live person when help is needed.

While the health system is still working to get the platform up and running, Roszhart says success will be measured by patient engagement – how many complete the process, where do people drop out and ask for help, how they feel about the process – and cost savings. And while that latter metric might refer to the fewer number of staff needed to handle these administrative duties, he sees this as an opportunity to train them in other departments.

Would a virtual waiting room, then, eliminate the need for the physical waiting room?

That may be the goal, Roszhart says, but it’s a long ways off.

“Healthcare’s insistence on maintaining the status quo … has really hurt our ability to modernize our practice,” he points out. In addition, there will always be a percentage of the population that prefers, out of habit or familiarity, to avoid technology and sit in a waiting room.

For the time being, Memorial Health has a waiting room concept that caters to every whim. Those who prefer to do everything online will be able to do so, while others can request to have their documents e-mailed or mailed to them, or even brought out to their car in the parking lot.

Eventually, Roszhart envisions a waiting room much more inviting than the typical room with old furniture and magazines and the occasional fish tank and water cooler. He sees a space offering health and wellness resources and personalized care experiences.

“I see the physical space of a primary care office being entirely different,” he says.   

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