Supporting Patient Engagement Through Digital Health Literacy with Dr. Maida Affan

On our latest episode of the Caring Support Podcast, we talked about patient engagement, digital health, and much more with Dr. Maida Affan, a healthcare marketing and communications professional with experience in clinical, wellness content marketing, and digital strategies.

This is what she told us:

5 Questions on Supporting Patient Engagement Through Digital Health Literacy

1. What is the biggest challenge that affects patient engagement in healthcare?

First, let's define really what patient engagement is. It refers to enabling and empowering patients to access and apply relevant health information to improve their own health. In other words, it's really about patients playing an active role in their own health care. And that's what we need more of, right? When patients are more engaged, involved, aware, and knowledgeable about their health conditions, that's really when they feel empowered and confident in terms of making more informed health decisions, but also share a better relationship with their providers. So, coming back to the question, when we talk about challenges, we can really broadly sort of categorize them into two parts. We have patient challenges and then we have challenges on the provider side as well, because patient engagement is a two-way street. Experts are realizing, especially more so after the pandemic, that health care all over the world is seeing this digital transformation. And so we understand that health care is unique; it has its own unique challenges when compared to other industries.

One of the main challenges from the patient side is that they're still a little bit confused. People say there's resistance to change, but I think it's more than that. I think it's sort of fear of the unknown because clinicians and patients both, they've been so used to doing things a certain way. Even simple things like symptom management or wound care and rehabilitation, and mental health therapy... all of this has always been face-to-face. All of this has either been resolved by doing a hospital stay or a hospital admission and not through a camera or not at home. But now because of digital advancements, we know that these things can be taken care of at home. More than 80% of problems can be solved virtually and can be cured and treated at home and managed and monitored at home as well, which is great because it reduces the influx of patients at the hospital. It reduces the burden on an already burdened health care system. But then it's really about communicating back to the patients, letting them know that this works and really gaining their trust. And I think that the first step of patient engagement is really to alleviate their confusion. But how do you do that?

Patients might be aware of telemedicine. I'm sure their primary care providers from their community clinics are telling them "I will just call you, we'll give you a call or you can contact us." But then it's about going one step further. It's really about the patient experience through digital pathways. And that's where it boils down to poor health and digital health literacy. We have to understand that digital health now, it's at the forefront, historically speaking, and that patient engagement is at the forefront of research, policy, and public health. It's about making the population at large healthier.

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2. Why do you think we're still dealing with the digital divide that separates patients from past generations from digital natives?

Number one, I think it's because we need to identify those gaps, understanding that it is a huge problem and it's something that is affecting patients' lives. It's affecting the health care ecosystem. And then coming together, aligning appropriate and relevant stakeholders, and finding a unified solution for this. However, with health care digitization, clinicians are just expected to sort of turn on their laptops in their clinics and go online and have these telemedicine appointments and just do everything digitally. But a lot of the clinicians, we know that a large proportion of them belong to an older physician cohort and they might not be digital tech-savvy. They might not have the proper training. There's a lack of training even among the younger clinicians because they're already so pressed for time and they're experiencing burnout and they have so much administrative work. So I think there are a lot of factors here.

I want to mention here a survey that I read a couple of days ago in which they surveyed over 100 doctors or healthcare executives in a healthcare organization and asked them for their opinion on what the top deterrent was in terms of patient outcomes and patient engagement, and the number one cause that they found was a gap in health communication and even more the supply chain optimization. And so that really goes to show that physicians and clinicians do realize that there's a gap there but I think the solution is that providers at the top need to be more perceptive and receptive and need to understand and hear the voices of clinicians and patients based on their outcomes and need to come together to really address these concerns. If we don't, nothing is going to get better.

I think I'd like to mention some of the five A's of patient engagement, so to speak. So this is sort of like a framework of patient engagement. And it can easily be applied through digital clinical pathways:

  1. Ask. Ask about the health behaviours of the patient.
  2. Advice. Once you know the sort of health behaviours patients are already used to, you would advise them to modify these unhealthy behaviours.
  3. Assess. This means assessing the willingness of the patient to change.
  4. Assist. How can you assist them in this behaviour change?
  5. Arrange. Schedule follow-ups to see how patients are progressing.

All of this is done digitally. The patient doesn't have to keep on going back and forth for physical visits. This is done through a patient portal in patient-accessible charts, which are electronic health records. It's a database where patient information is stored securely. And so patients have access to all these doctor's notes and their own medical records. All of this information is communicated to and from the clinician or the provider through digital means. Once the doctor or the clinician has all that information, they're in a better position to assess thatdata and be ready for a follow-up visit, either virtually or in person. We know it's possible because it's being done. We just need to do it in a more seamless way.

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3. Why is healthcare so slow to adopt new channels of engagement that are easier to use and help reduce the digital divide?

If you look at it holistically speaking, there's a lot of concern around financial benefits and around an ROI (return of investment), so to speak. My argument is that if we're using technology for better patient care, why aren't we using or leveraging the same technology for better patient communication? We've seen studies and reports and all these different reports that come out. They've shown that people or organization agents are willing to invest in health care technology that is directly related to patient care, but they're not willing to invest in patient communication or engagement tools. On the flip side, when we talk about ROIs, studies do show that there is a financial benefit to it. There is a visible ROI. There was a study that I was reading that showed that physicians were able to make $20,000 per year per physician. There was an increase of $20,000 per year per physician. And there was a 20% increase in the patient influx to the health care organization because of better patient engagement because patients felt more involved. There was trust that was developed with that particular organization. That goes to show if you put the infrastructure in place and if you laid the foundation down, you will see a better result. When we talk about the clinical outcomes of patient engagement, we can see that they're more involved, there's a reduced cost of care, and there's improved self-management. They feel more confident, and more in control. Ultimately, they're more likely to follow the doctor's orders, adhere to their medication, and go to their follow-ups on time. And all of this in the long term, there's reduced hospital admissions, there's the reduced burden on the health care economy. Right.

Something that me and my team at Seven Health emphasize is patient communication. And we need to understand that the means or the mode of communication has also changed. The means of marketing have also changed, just like the needs of receiving and providing care have changed because of digitization. If we talk about how much digital content we consume in a day, it may total up to 6 hours and some minutes daily of digital information or online information that we're consuming, which is why patients really want bit size information, digestible information, relevant information, and then personalized information that really incites them to take some sort of action.

4. How can organizations in the healthcare sector better support patients to ensure better engagement with them?

Fundamentally speaking, if I were to step back and look at this more high level, this is the kind of conversation that happens in anything related to stuff that we do in life. It's like, let's say a personal relationship or maybe any kind of business relationship you have with somebody in sales or account manager. Don't assume things, you've got to communicate. Put yourself in the shoes and these people. I think a lot of times it comes down to empathy. We just really need to be more mindful and aware that if we were in their position, what would we want to know? What would really matter to us right now? Ask, find out. Like, just find.

Another point is sort of providing more value for the patients and working towards health equity, which is so important This connects with the notion of the consumerization of health care. For so long, patients have not been treated as consumers and now it's time to treat them as consumers and incentivize health care. That's another point that I missed. All the other industries are incentivizing their products, so I think this industry has to work on health equity.

Furthermore, it's all about giving them need-to-know information instead of nice-to-know information. Nobody has time for "nice". More and more health care experts are realizing this, but it's really about those decision-makers adding clinicians, adding people from the health care background to the decision-making table. If you're making a tool for a patient, you need to have them on board.

5. What are the best strategies you can think of to promote digital health literacy and empower patients?

Excellent question, because that's what I do, right? So first, of all, you have to meet the patients where they are. And what I mean by that is most of the patients are online, right? So if you have a backache or you woke up with a headache in the morning, the first thing you're going to do is Google, maybe the symptoms of your headache or whatever you're going through, instead of calling a doctor. That's the natural sort of behaviour that we've all sort of adapted. And so what I mean by meeting patients where they are is that you have to have your bases covered. And I think digital technology is an enabler and it empowers everyone. So, it's essential to be on those relevant channels and to have a decent website with all the necessary information, a Google My Business for your local community and some sort of social media presence as well because people are on social media all the time. And then you, you know, depending on what your goals are and your objectives and your marketing objectives are, that's when we start to sort of narrow down and focus in on your messaging or narrative and how you want to communicate and how you want to relate to your audience.

So, again, make it concise, provide need-to-know information and make sure that whatever information you're putting out there is fact-checked and that it has some sort of supporting reference. And even if there's some sort of regulation that you have to abide by and you can't advertise your core product or service, you can still become a hub of trust for health information and a resource of health information that patients can turn to.

About the interviewee:

Dr. Maida Affan has a diverse background in working across interdisciplinary sectors such as health education, advocacy, digital health, telemedicine, EMRs, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, health-tech startups, wellness, and healthcare consumer goods. She has collaborated with healthcare startups and has helped them strengthen their positioning in a highly competitive market by planning and implementing effective marketing and outreach processes in the digital landscape through powerful content & data-driven strategies touching upon various digital touchpoints.

Dr. Maida's efforts aim to improve access and visibility by bridging the communication gap between the consumer and provider; putting convenience and empathy at the core of my strategies. She is also a podcast host, organizer of virtual events in the digital health space, and networking enthusiast. "I'm eager to forge meaningful partnerships and alliances and would be happy to have a 1:1 with anyone who's interested," she says.


Last, but not least, you can listen to the full interview with Dr. Maida Affan by visiting our podcast or YouTube channel.

Thank you for reading!

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