Digital Health Disconnect Creates Unnecessary Roadblock to Patient Engagement

Aaron Kaufman, EVP at Carenet Health

By all accounts, the last two years have accelerated consumer adoption of digital tools for managing nearly every aspect of our lives. Ordering takeout? Odds are good you used a digital payment method, alongside the 93% of consumers who say they’ve used tools like Venmo and Zelle over the last year. Visiting your primary care physician? There’s a good chance you had at least some interaction with a patient portal or telehealth platform. Even the dreaded trip to the DMV has gone digital, with most states having overhauled their motor vehicle departments to accept online reservations.

This transformation – which everyone had been predicting for years, but never really hit a tipping point until the pandemic – should be a boon for healthcare. Age-old challenges like access to care, chronic disease management, and adherence to annual well visits and routine preventive screenings should now be easily addressed with the same efficiency we’re seeing in other aspects of our consumer lives. But they are not. Routine care plummeted during the pandemic and has still not bounced back, and as telehealth utilization has grown, patients have experienced more pain points and barriers to care.

In the race to roll out telehealth offerings and digital patient engagement tools during the height of the pandemic, many providers and health plans inadvertently created a rag-tag assortment of patient portals, health apps and clunky websites that can be impossible to navigate and even more difficult to integrate with existing tech infrastructure. To overcome these obstacles, providers and payers need to take a holistic approach to digital patient engagement, one that makes it seamless for patients to coordinate care with multiple providers across digital, telehealth and face-to-face interactions.

By focusing on tech that improves engagement with patients and streamlines care coordination, it is possible to unlock the full potential of digital health.

Patient Engagement Needs to Evolve

Let’s start with patient engagement. Numerous studies have shown that some of the largest barriers to patient adherence to prescribed care are that patients lack an understanding of the tasks they are being asked to perform or in many cases, simply forget to follow through. That should not happen in our current world of always-on, multichannel connectivity. But it still does because many of the providers and health plans responsible for conveying this information have not yet evolved their approach to connecting with patients and each other.

I saw this phenomenon firsthand when I worked for a major health plan that was developing a care management program to improve routine adherence for members with chronic diseases. We had all the data, and we knew exactly which members were at the highest risk. We should have been able to use that information to improve outcomes and reduce costs. But by the time we were finished leaving voicemails, playing phone tag and more often than not, missing the mark, we tallied the total cost to actually get a member scheduled while on the phone at about $190 per attended appointment. Even a best-in-class, healthcare call center can typically only reach about 50% of a population list using the phone alone. 

In the current world of programmatic outreach, AI-enabled chatbots and SMS text-based scheduling tools, we should be able to do more to automate the process of connecting and engaging with patients across multiple channels. If Amazon is capable of letting me know my package is on the way via text, email, Alexa and my Ring doorbell camera, certainly my doctor or health plan should be able to remind me that I’m due for a well visit.

Rethinking the Approach to Care Coordination

But engagement alone is only half the equation. To be truly effective, engagement needs to be informed by the full continuum of care a patient is receiving, whether that care is occurring at a pharmacy, via a mail-order colon cancer screening lab or through a telehealth visit. Here, many have tried and failed to develop massive, proprietary EHR tools and expensive data integration projects that allow the systems of different stakeholders to communicate seamlessly. While a lofty concept, it’s just not practical in the siloed real world of healthcare.

It is, however, easy to standardize information-sharing protocols between providers, health plans and ancillary service providers by using simple, web-based recipient authentication methods. These technologies, which have become commonplace in the world of contract law, finance, real estate and countless other industries that require secure, seamless exchange of information can be leveraged right now to remove barriers to patient engagement and care collaboration. Connections can and should be made without relying on proprietary patient portals and other clunky technologies that impede the efficient flow of information.

Healthcare has come so far over the last two years, but we’re still coming up short on the goal of fully connected patient engagement and seamless patient data interoperability between providers. The good news is that it will not take a massive data lake investment or reinvention of current care delivery models to get there. What it will take is an evolution in the way we approach patient engagement and care coordination, one that is more in line with the way we order household goods and sign online user agreements than the old-fashioned, disconnected model that has kept us behind for so long.

About Aaron Kaufman

Aaron Kaufman is an executive vice president at Carenet Health, a leading healthcare engagement, clinical support, telehealth and advocacy solutions provider supporting 86 million consumers annually. Kaufman is the founder of OpenMed, a new division of Carenet Health. Aaron can be reached at