Digital Patient Engagement Trends: 4 things to Watch in 2022

As we look to examine digital patient engagement trends for the coming year, it is not underselling it to say that the past two years in healthcare have been unlike anything the industry has ever experienced. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world hard in late 2019, and collectively, the industry has been taking blows ever since. 

Since March 2020, U.S. hospitals and health systems have been overwhelmed as wave after wave of the pandemic sends an ever increasing number of patients with COVID-19 to their emergency rooms, urgent care centers, and medical offices. 

Staffing shortages that were bad a year ago are only getting worse. Hospitals and health systems across the country are once again stretched beyond capacity and are facing unfathomable resource scarcity, which in addition to shortages has resulted in burnout and an exodus of staff leaving the day-to-day patient care trenches. 

But we have also learned a great deal since then. COVID-19 put a spotlight on health equity, and public and private entities spanning the entire healthcare industry are focusing efforts on closing equity gaps and providing personalized care that meets the needs of all patients. It also increased awareness of behavioral health needs and issues like post-COVID syndrome

The pandemic also ushered in a new demand for telehealth and virtual health options, and healthcare organizations saw that to meet evolving consumer needs, they would need to evolve the way they managed engagement and communication.

As the world heads into the third year of COVID-19, here’s what Get Well sees as the digital patient engagement trends to watch this year. 

Healthcare staffing crisis will drive second wave of digital health acceleration

The pandemic forced widespread adoption of telehealth while also exacerbating the nursing shortage. But after nearly two years of remote health visits, people are eager for the human connection they’re used to from caregivers. Get Well’s executive leadership team believes now is the time for digital health technology to shine.

Meeting the growing health and wellness needs of the U.S. population amid the current healthcare staffing shortage will drive a surge in digital health innovation and expanded capabilities, predicts CEO Michael O’Neil. He expects to see an uptick in technologies that help the medical community serve patients at scale, including adoption of technologies that engage the nursing community, remove non-clinical tasks to allow nurses to focus on patient care instead of laborious administrative activities, and help them be more resilient and satisfied in their jobs. The good news: consumers are ready to self-serve wherever possible. 

Royal Tuthill, GM, Ambulatory and Population Health, agrees, predicting that 2022 will see significant investments in new technologies and alternative organizational models with the goal of scaling nurses and bringing much needed relief and a renewed sense of purpose and satisfaction. 

President Nikia Bergan anticipates that the critical healthcare labor shortage is also going to be the impetus for healthcare delivery organizations to innovate, noting that technology can bridge that gap. With doctors and nurses in high demand to perform the caregiving functions they have been trained for, there are operational opportunities where technology can play a supporting role to help providers know where their attention is needed most. 

Health equity will move from headlines to impact

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the issue of health inequities to light for those outside of the healthcare industry. But within the industry, health inequities have been a persistent challenge. The United States has long struggled with significant disparities in health outcomes between various patient populations, geographic locations, communities, and individuals.   

COVID-19 put a spotlight on these deep, persistent, systemic inequalities in healthcare. As the headlines inevitably fade in today’s relentless news cycle, one of several patient engagement trends O’Neil predicts is that many in the industry will continue to be mobilized to take on health equity in ways that will have lasting impact. He expects to see public and private sector collaborations emerge to address health inequalities on a magnitude we haven’t seen before. Importantly, he adds that “we won’t be able to fully realize equitable healthcare without empowering the heroes on the front lines: the doctors and nurses working with patients day in and day out.”

The past few years brought forward the movement to increase visibility and discussion related to racial disparities and health equity in our healthcare delivery system, adds Tuthill. Many organizations, from the C-suite down, made public statements about their commitment to improving health equity in their organizations and communities. The organizations that transitional their health equity intent to a strategy and into their budgets and operations will stand out as leaders in 2022.

A new era of mobile healthcare will emerge

Today’s healthcare consumers are looking for a different kind of healthcare experience — one that engages them in familiar ways on familiar devices that gives them a sense of control over their healthcare. Approximately 85% of consumers own a smartphone, and healthcare organizations should look to leverage that robust mobile usage when considering healthcare delivery, says Todd Strickler, SVP of Product at Get Well. 

With a handheld device at the ready for most consumers, Strickler says that 2022 must be the year that healthcare organizations thoughtfully shift to a mobile-first strategy that places patients in control and drives meaningful improvements in patient engagement and outcomes — a solution that meets patients where they are. 

The ability to access resources or manage your hospital stay via your own device empowers patients and places control back into their hands. Organizations that can successfully leverage digital health technology and harness its powers to transform the healthcare experience to come directly to patients with just the tap of a finger will be well positioned to stand out in 2022. 

Tuthill predicts that this will be the year that health systems really push beyond their four walls into the communities they serve, but he also notes that the model has to change. Heavy cost models of community health workers will require combining the scalability of new digital tools brought forward by the pandemic with a new tech-enabled era of community engagement. “The ones that succeed will be those that facilitate human connection on a bigger scale instead of trying to remove the human connection altogether,” says Tuthill. O’Neil agrees, adding that “the ones who figure this out will recognize that humans need to be at the center of the equation and that the supporting technology needs to be way more empathetic and personal.” 

Moreover, with more advancements in ambulatory technology and monitoring, Bergan predicts we’ll begin seeing more aggressive care being administered in settings outside the hospital. This has been catalyzed by an acceleration of digital modalities, as well as an increased acceptance from consumers, who are increasingly looking to take a greater role in self-management of their care, she says.

The lines between retail and healthcare will blur

Retail companies have entered the healthcare industry by bringing clinics into their retail spaces. These traditional retailers have long used technology to meet customer expectations for convenient, personalized, multi-channel interactions and are stepping up to achieve healthcare’s “digital front door” — the wraparound experience that changes the way patients engage with their care. In healthcare, the providers and systems have a clear advantage, as retailers lack the domain expertise that health systems have. 

“As hospitals and health systems seek to deliver consumer-oriented care, organizations that understand the customer-patient expectations will emerge as leaders in the years to come within the healthcare market,” says Strickler. In 2022, he expects retail companies to rethink their current store strategies to incorporate delivery of consumer-oriented care by providing medical clinics to the general population. This approach will not only provide patients easy access to healthcare services, but will also help redefine the patients’ experience as consumer- oriented, convenient, and accessible.

This may also manifest in how digital health is used to prevent the needs for services at all. Bergan says “the future of healthcare is going to increasingly become about predicting who is going to get sick and providing services and preventative measures to those at a higher risk.” She believes we’ll also see a greater move by digital health providers to build out robust architectures needed to allow clinicians to help you manage your conditions remotely and over time. 

The bottom line

Following the past two years in healthcare, it should come as no surprise that our experts predict that 2022 will be full of innovation and opportunities for digital technology to improve the overall healthcare experience for patients and staff. There’s still a lot of work to do, but Get Well is ready to help hospitals, health systems, and payers get off to a great start in 2022.