To fulfill digital tech’s promise to transform healthcare, simplicity is key

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May 27, 2021

If there’s been one small, silver lining to COVID, I would argue that it’s the expansion of  healthcare further into the digital space, most notably seen with the rise in telehealth. Not only has telehealth kept patients connected to providers during the pandemic, but telehealth makes healthcare available for  people who traditionally struggle to consume it, such as those in rural communities. Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to healthcare—as the late Clayton Christensen noted in The Innovator’s Prescription, technological advances have the potential to make products and services far more accessible, thereby increasing consumption. Cell phones, in particular smartphones, put the world in people’s pockets, making myriad products and services more consumable. 

Yet many experts feel that not enough energy is being put into making online healthcare convenient and engaging. Just because healthcare is available does not mean it’s accessible; to reach more consumers services must also be easy to navigate and use by even the least internet literate. According to a Deloitte report, many believe that online healthcare services are being designed around a traditional, in-person model of care, rather than being designed from the ground up as online experiences. As a result, instead of creating systems that transform care by making it simpler and more convenient, these half-baked systems are often clunky, difficult to use, and could present a possible deterrent to drawing in new patients. 

On the other hand, some providers are leveraging digital tech’s potential to its fullest extent. Providers that exclusively offer telehealth, for instance, necessarily think about how to optimize their digital platforms because they’re integral to how their businesses operate. Since mobile health offerings are their bread and butter, their entire systems must be designed around making telehealth as easy and accessible as possible. 

Below we highlight two ways in which online platforms that are designed to support in-person care fall short of fulfilling tech’s potential, and contrast them with online platforms that are creating usable and engaging online experiences by optimizing for digital care.

1. Booking appointments

Being able to book appointments online—even for in-person appointments—is a priority from a consumer standpoint. Yet depending on whether the platform is designed to support in-person care or optimized for digital care, the consumer’s experience can be remarkably different. 

For example, many have undoubtedly experienced the frustration of trying to book an appointment online only to realize it would have been far more efficient over the phone. In lieu of a simple intake form, some healthcare platforms have complex booking processes with long, demanding questionnaires that could easily be covered during the appointment or, for in-person care, in the waiting room. Others require patients using telehealth to wait for their appointments in “virtual waiting rooms” that require users to sit with their app open until their appointment starts. Particularly for those who are less tech savvy, these inconvenient digital platforms aren’t likely to encourage people who’ve been neglected by the healthcare system to seek care. 

In contrast, Teladoc is a telehealth platform that offers 24/7 access to a board-certified physician through its website and mobile app. All appointments are booked online, simply by clicking a button and answering a couple questions about the need to see a doctor, and patients can choose whether to have a phone or video appointment based on what suits their needs. Patients do not need to sit with their app open waiting for the appointment to begin; instead, they receive a notification or email when they need to log back on. 

2. Medical billing

Medical billing has a long-standing reputation for being one of the most complicated parts of receiving healthcare. For many consumers, surprise billing, uncertainty over insurance coverage, and confusion over what is actually being billed for create headaches, hassles, and a desire to avoid care altogether. 

Unfortunately, many online platforms have yet to leverage digital tech to simplify this process. Many health systems still mail their patients paper bills with information that must be input into their online platforms, which is needlessly complicated—not to mention frustrating—and others send bills online months after a patient’s initial appointment, confusing those who believed that their visit was covered by insurance. 

In contrast, providers that are optimized for digital care—particularly those with a large telehealth presence—can define their payment models to both be consumer-friendly and convenient. Teladoc charges an up-front, flat fee for their consultations, which can be paid for using a credit card or through the user’s PayPal account. One Medical, a concierge medicine provider that relies heavily on a well-integrated tech platform, charges one yearly membership fee that covers both in-person and video consultations, with an easy-to-navigate billing tab as part of their app. 

Digital health platforms have the potential of significantly simplifying care for both patients and providers. But simply developing an app for the sake of having one will do little. Providers need to be intentional about leveraging digital tech to make sure that it actually does make care more convenient and accessible for everyone. 

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.