Healthcare Providers Rely on High Touch—Not High Tech—to Reach Diverse Patient Groups

As digital health experts, our job is to continuously push the innovation envelope for our clients and constituents. But central to our success is understanding how our healthcare target audiences actually engage with brands, resources, and each other. In her guest post today, Sarah Scalet of HealthEd provides a valuable reality check, and reveals that despite widespread adoption of text messaging, providers still use snail mail 3 times as often as text messages to reach patients. Let’s take a look at her point of view, based on fresh data from a new HealthEd report…

By Sarah Scalet

In trying to engage the increasingly diverse patients walking through their doors, healthcare providers still rely mostly on traditional, non-technological methods—and that may be a missed opportunity.

That’s a key finding of healthcare market research released this week by HealthEd Academy, the research arm of HealthEd. The report, “Engaging Patients From Multicultural Backgrounds,” highlights gaps in how well the U.S. healthcare system is equipped to meet the needs of minority patients. The research is based on an extensive survey of almost 200 healthcare extenders—non-MD health professionals who work directly with patients and whose numbers include nurses, dietitians, health educators, patient navigators, and social workers.

When asked how they typically deliver education to patients, 85% of respondents said they use printed materials, and 65% conduct group classes or workshops. Eighty-eight percent deliver patient education in-person, one-on-one.

While there’s no substitute for hands-on education, the report suggests that smart, targeted use of technology may allow healthcare extenders to engage more diverse groups of patients. The most common technology-based methods of delivering patient education are via websites (30%), email (21%), and social media (15%).  The least common are via private patient portal (5%) and text messaging (4%).

Nearly 3 in 10 healthcare extenders report that they do not use technology or social media at all to engage patients or that they do not see the benefits of doing so. When asked why, the most common reason cited by respondents was patients’ lack of access to technology.

However, according to outside research cited in the report, avoiding technology may be shortsighted. A recent report from Pew Research Center revealed that 85% of American adults own a cell phone. Of those, 80% can send and receive text messages—compared to 50% of whom can use their phones to send or receive email. What’s more, technology use in some minority populations is actually higher than in the general U.S. population. For instance, according to Nielsen research, Asian-Americans have a higher rate of smart phone adoption than do other ethnicities, including Caucasians.

Despite these trends, adoption of cell-phone based patient education programs remains extremely low, according to the HealthEd Academy market research report. Only 4% of respondents use text messaging to connect with patients, compared to 14% of respondents who use snail mail. But that may be about to change.

“Text messaging reminders for vaccination appointments show a lot of promise in improving up-to-date rates,” wrote one respondent, a health educator in a public health department, in response to an open-ended question.

A case study included in the report explores a program, Text in the City, that aims to reach low-income minority patients at a free New York City clinic where 49% of patients are Latino and 45% are African American. Dr. Katherine Malbon, founder of the program, created Text in the City after surveying her patients and learning that 95% of them owned cell phones.

“If you look around, all kinds of apps for smart phones are being developed. But not all low-income patients have smart phones, so these apps wouldn’t work for them,” Malbon, assistant professor in Pediatrics in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, told HealthEd Academy in an interview published in the report. “These patients don’t necessarily have access to the Internet and other technologies, but they do have their cell phones.”

With Text in the City, patients can sign up for automated medication reminders, such as for birth control, as well as weekly health advice. They can also use a chat function that lets them text health questions to a doctor and get an answer within 24 hours.

“[I]t’s about knowing your audience and directing your intervention at the technology they are using, rather than creating the intervention without really knowing who is going to use it,” Malbon told HealthEd Academy.

The HealthEd Academy report concludes that to serve the whole population of the United States—and not just portions of it—health care providers must have a nuanced understanding of the various needs of their patients, and work to create multi-channel approaches to meeting those needs. And that will continue to be true regardless of the race, religion, cultural beliefs—or even shoe size—of the patients walking in through their doors.

Sarah Scalet is content director at HealthEd. Follow her @sscalet. To download a free excerpt of the report or learn more about purchasing the full report, visit www.HealthEdAcademy.com, and we’re eager to read your comments below! 

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Michael Spitz , known most often as just "Spitz," is Editor-in-Chief of the Pixels & Pills and a prollific tweeter, blogger, and article writer, active in digital health across all specialties. Follow him @SpitzStrategy.

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  1. Pingback: Healthcare Extenders Raise Their Hands for Help in Reaching Diverse Patients | SurroundHealth Blog