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From surviving to thriving: How technology and relationships will define healthcare post-pandemic

By Carley Thornell | January 22, 2021

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With the ongoing distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, there is an end to the public health crisis in sight. But what won’t ebb post-pandemic is the magnified role that technology plays in assuaging disruption and supporting growth across the healthcare continuum. Providers and organizations need to broaden their scope beyond traditional ways of evaluating return on investment, writes International Data Corporation (IDC). The key to surviving and thriving will be those who embrace emergent care models and longitudinal patient engagement, according to the athenahealth-sponsored IDC Business Value Solutions brief “Expanding the Value Equation with athenahealth.”

The market intelligence and advisory services firm’s new commissioned whitepaper, “Expanding the Value Equation with athenahealth,” highlights the journey of six customers with disparate sizes and profiles but focuses on several themes that united them all and allowed them to adapt during the pandemic. A solution that supports virtual care and the rapid adoption of telehealth is not the least of these. “The ability for us to keep the business going remotely during the lockdown with athenaOne allowed us to maintain patient contact,” one customer said of the cloud-based suite of clinical, billing, and communication tools.

Agility and integration were cited by several customers as key components of their ability to transition, and for continued success. Ed Corns, senior vice president of physician services at Quorum Healthcare, pointed to the rapid development of an embedded virtual care solution —  athenaTelehealth — at the onset of the public health emergency. “Offering telehealth and doing remote documentation became a dire need,” Corns said. “athenahealth pivoted quickly to provide these services and gave us flexibility to build telehealth templates into our EMR.” Quorum, which owns or operates 22 hospitals and 15 outpatient centers in 13 states spanning the South, Midwest, and West, was able to increase its virtual care volume from 10 visits a month to 20,000 visits monthly using the embedded solution. The group is also able to bring new organizations onto its network regularly, transferring data into athenaOne easily, said Corns. “athenahealth is very adaptable — it's always been one of its strong suits.”

Partnership with a health IT vendor also ranked high on Corns’ list of success measures, as he feels his voice is heard for requested developments — particularly as an alpha client for athenaTelehealth. Others, including Chicago’s Esperanza Health Center, shared insights about their customer success manager, a liaison who communicates regularly to optimize business goals and use of technology, and help promote better patient outcomes. “She is dogged in pursuing our needs and very good at framing issues and level-setting with us. It really helps us make sure we’re moving in the right direction and have the right expectations,” said Jeff McInnis, Esperanza’s director of billing and patient access. Like other partners featured in the whitepaper, the federally qualified health center is also onboard with athenahealth’s shared-incentive model, in which the technology partner is paid a percentage of total customer collections, giving both sides a financial stake in customer performance. “It's clear that athenahealth has skin in the game. The result is that we get a long-term partnership. They’re in it with you for the long haul, not just through the initial setup,” said McInnis. 

Transparency and automation resonate among all customers in the IDC brief, Esperanza included, where athenaOne capabilities meant they brought revenue cycle management (RCM) back in house, instead of outsourcing with a third-party vendor. Reporting capabilities mean the collection rates are “really high” and McInnis estimates that the RCM team of four would be doubled if his staff didn’t opt for an athenahealth partnership. Optimal Pain & Regenerative Medicine executive director Shannon Moyers says better financial reporting than previous solutions has helped her four-provider Dallas practice maintain its independence. “Everything is transparent — we never had that before.” Enhanced functionality to automate chart prep, for instance, also helps providers focus more on patient care than administrative tasks. “The whole staff is able to concentrate more on meaningful care. From check-in to the end of the visit, [athenahealth] has taken a lot off their plates,” Moyers said. (Learn more about Optimal’s experience in this video.)     

Connections and access  — whether those connections be professional, with patients, or regarding network data for performance benchmarking — are a focus for all providers and organizations profiled. They included Dr. Jeff Drasnin of seven-provider ESD Pediatric Group in Ohio, a longtime member of athenahealth’s Maven advocacy program. He often shares his success profile when networking or collaborating with other existing or potential customers. Most recently that profile includes an almost seamless transition to virtual care, facilitated by distribution of materials and information about pandemic protocols, or procedures for maintaining ESD’s “bread and butter” — pediatric well visits. “We frequently use athenaCommunicator to send texts and emails,” he said. “The biggest way to keep your patients engaged is to get them information.”

No matter what the size of the organization, each noted enhanced patient engagement since adopting the athenaOne platform — which not only enabled them to work through the challenges of COVID-19 but set the stage for a more digitally focused approach post-pandemic. Study participants reported a tenfold increase in patient portal usage since transitioning to athenaOne.

Beyond surviving to thriving

Few could argue that COVID-19 hasn’t been a catalyst for innovation, and the IDC brief notes that lasting transformation across an enterprise should be extracted from crisis response best practices. Transitioning beyond surviving to thriving organizationally hinges on long-term goals that include “more meaningful [clinical] relationships,” “highly personalized experiences,” and “patient retention, acquisition, and loyalty.” Consumer-grade patient portal experiences — the likes of which have been embraced by patients during the pandemic — are just one step in that direction. athenahealth data show an 18-month 80 percent retention rate among patient portal adopters versus 67 percent of non-portal adopters. While that’s important for maintaining revenue, healthcare’s transition to value-based care models also ties in fiscal outcomes to health outcomes, and the patient experience. Relationship-driven outreach campaigns can keep up personalized communications in between appointments to enhance an approach that’s more longitudinal and less episodic. 

Successful organizations will not only continue to enhance their COVID-inspired digital transformations, IDC says, but adapt to care models informed by such longitudinal approaches — namely outpatient, home-care, and virtual settings. Consumer-grade experiences, along with new technology like mobile applications, are the main drivers fueling the steady growth of outpatient services, reports Rev Cycle Intelligence. A fall athenahealth webinar about “How innovative care models are positioning for success during COVID-19 and beyond” chronicles the rapid growth of alternative models including mobile urgent care that added at-home COVID-19 testing options, and keeps potentially contagious patients out of emergency rooms. And for rural and chronic care management patients and millions more, recent strides in payment parity for telehealth visits show that meeting patients where and when they prefer has been mobilized in more ways than one.

Read more from the IDC Business Value Solutions Brief, “Expanding the Value Equation with athenahealth,” here

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