The fastest way to access healthcare in the United States isn’t through a primary care physician or urgent care or orchestrated referrals processes. It comes through three taps of a button: Nine, one, and one.
Dialing 911 during a medical emergency is a straightforward process: Callers are routed to the correct dispatcher, resources are deployed quickly and effectively, and patients are transported to the correct facility to receive care. Through three simple numbers, you are whisked into the healthcare system and receive the care you need at that moment.
Navigating the healthcare system after that initial contact via 911 can certainly become more difficult—making the contrast between initiating emergency care and accessing care in all other corners of the healthcare system all the more obvious. The tremendous ease of initiating the process stands in stark contrast with the difficulty of accessing care in almost every other corner of the healthcare system. Accessing byzantine online portals, calling for referrals, manually asking to refill prescriptions, waiting seemingly forever in waiting rooms—they’re all tasks that can feel onerous and run the risk of putting up unnecessary obstacles to care, particularly for vulnerable populations.
Admittedly, it isn’t practical or necessary or even really desirable for every interaction patients have with their healthcare providers to be done with the same speed and responsiveness of emergency 911 calls. But we must be able to create some middle ground, especially in a healthcare environment so increasingly defined by consumerism, where patients put a premium on convenience, speed, and experience.
So how can providers optimize and ensure that patients not only have easier paths to care? Here are a few key considerations and best practices:
Self-service that doesn’t feel too self-reliant: Self-service tools are an incredibly important tool to break down barriers to care. Unless a voice call is their preferred method, patients shouldn’t have to manually call a doctor or hospital or specialist to schedule an appointment, request a prescription refill, see lab results, or just ask a quick question. Self-service tools that allow patients to bypass manual steps in the engagement process are key to easing friction, but when done incorrectly, self-service can feel even more onerous to patients. Patients should feel known; they shouldn’t have to enter the same information multiple times, for example, or have to tell a provider what prescriptions they take when requesting a refill. Patients should be empowered to take as much action as they would like to, without having to work or jump through hoops to do so.
Engagement across any channel: Portals are invaluable tools for many patients, but they can’t be the end-all, be-all. Patient preferences differ in terms of engagement channel and, critically, portal and device use can shift along racial and socioeconomic lines. Whether SMS, email, voice, or portal, engagement should feel seamless and connected across all channels, while interfacing with patients on their device or channel of choice.
The end of the waiting room magazine shuffle: Thankfully, a phenomenon that seems to be going by the wayside are long waits confined to a waiting room, hoping to hear your name called while thumbing through a six-month-old copy of Golf Digest. By tapping into virtual waiting rooms and digital queuing systems, providers can better calibrate wait times, keep people in the waiting room for shorter periods, and have them fill out necessary paperwork digitally on their own phone while they wait—if they haven’t already done so.
Reminders at the right time: Automated appointment reminders don’t just prevent no-shows—retaining key revenue in a difficult time—they also improve patient experience and create backfill opportunities, opening another path for patients to access care easily. By automatically reaching out at strategic intervals providers can not only spur patients into attending their appointments but give them the autonomy and easy ability to reschedule if they need to without having to make a call or log onto a portal.
So while we might not have a true 911-type solution across the entire health continuum, we can take the 911 principle—easy access, user-friendly, uniform—and apply it everywhere. By doing so, we can build systems of access that are equitable, cohesive, and, most importantly, improve patient outcomes.
About Mandana Varahrami, Chief Product Officer
Mandana brings over twenty years of experience in the healthcare industry, including global public health research, public policy, consulting and product management. As Chief Product Officer, she directs the creative vision and execution of CipherHealth’s products, leading the company towards its next phase of growth while maximizing commercial upside. Prior to joining CipherHealth, Mandana spent over 11 years leading global product teams for healthcare and emergency services technologies, delivering enterprise SaaS healthcare solutions to hospitals and health systems and emergency services platforms to 911 call centers in the US. She has experience in building digital workflow, analytics and AI technologies, with a heavy emphasis on human-centered design. Most recently, Mandana led product teams at RapidDeploy, Babylon Health and the Advisory Board Company (now Optum Insights).