Opportunities and risks for ambulatory care providers

By MARK MARTIN – Expert Product Manager

As an ambulatory care provider, you’re squarely in health care’s growth segment – accounting for approximately one-third of health care spending in the United States (slightly more than inpatient care), according to the Health & Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. That can be both exciting and challenging as you navigate demands of new care protocols, patient demographic shifts, meaningful use of information technology and patient engagement expectations.

By making the right adjustments to your practice and focusing on continuous improvement, you can meet the needs of a growing patient population while taking advantage of available information technology, and be poised for future growth.

The graying waiting room
Bob Dylan once sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” So if you’re in medicine, you probably don’t need me to point out that older patients visit physicians more often than their younger counterparts. The fact is that nationwide, patients age 45 and older account for 57 percent of physician office visits, according to the US Census Bureau.

However, you might need a radar system of sorts to tell you exactly where the storms are brewing. Better trending and monitoring of chronic conditions is one of the many benefits that electronic medical records offer. Are you leveraging electronic health records to support chronic disease management for your ageing patients? We’re starting to see physicians move beyond basic Meaningful Use requirements and into more advanced and sophisticated health management through EMR use, which holds great promise for the future.

Across the industry, we’re seeing other big investments in initiatives to reduce health care costs, including better chronic care management, redirecting patients to lower-cost care settings, and more coordinated care through value-based reimbursement. Applying health information technology to achieve these goals will be key for the future.

Patient engagement
Patient engagement is another factor that we are starting to hear more and more about where technology is becoming a bigger part of the conversation. Patients who are more actively involved in their health care have better outcomes and incur lower costs, but getting patients involved in – and responsible for – their care can be tricky.

The age of the patient can be a big driver in how they prefer to be engaged. Younger generations demand tools that are social, real-time and integrated; they want progress to be measured and delivered through apps on their smart phone or in more sophisticated ways. Consider the runaway success of the Fitbit® and other wristbands that monitor diet, exercise, weight and sleep. But don’t overlook relatively simple methods like text and email messaging to keep your patients on track.

Older patients, on the other hand, tend to be less receptive to technology and less likely to proactively seek health information online. They may benefit more from more effective face-to-face communication and more aggressive outreach approaches, such as longer appointment times to explain their condition and follow-up care, more or better take-home diagnosis and care documentation, more extensive home monitoring via nurse outreach, and better care engagement by the patient’s spouse and/or family.

Of course, age is only one factor to consider in a patient engagement model. A patient’s beliefs about their role as a patient, health literacy and education level will also influence their level of engagement – not to mention other factors such as your organization’s policies, practices and culture and societal norms. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to patient engagement, but by introducing a mix of technology and old fashioned face-to-face communication, you can increase patient engagement across the board.

Final thought
Practices that understand these shifts and are quick to adapt will be positioned to reap the benefits in both revenue and patient satisfaction. Practices that don’t adjust will likely find themselves under continued revenue pressure and a dwindling number of active patients. We all need to find effective ways to bridge systems and expectations without compromising patient quality, privacy and satisfaction.