A health care startup made a wild pitch to Cara Waller, CEO of the Newport Orthopedic Institute. The company said it could get patients more engaged with their care by automating physician empathy.
It "almost made me nauseous," she said. How can you automate something as deeply personal as empathy?
But Waller needed help. Her physicians in Orange County, Calif., perform as many as 500 surgeries a year, managing large numbers of patients at various stages of treatment and recovery. The doctors needed a better way to communicate with patients and track their progress.
The California startup, HealthLoop, told Waller its messaging technology would improve patient satisfaction and help keep them out of the hospital. High satisfaction scores and low readmission rates mean higher reimbursements from Medicare. Waller was intrigued and decided to give the technology a try.
So far, she's been surprised at patients' enthusiasm for the personalized — but automated — daily emails they receive from their doctors.
Companies like HealthLoop are promising that their technologies will help patients stick to treatment and recovery regimens, avoid repeat hospital stays and be more satisfied with their care. Similar companies that aim to improve patient engagement include Wellframe, Curaspan and Infield Health.
HealthLoop's technology is being tested at medical centers that include the Cleveland Clinic, Kaiser Permanente-Southern California and the University of California, San Francisco.
How does it work? Doctors can send daily emails with information timed to milestones in surgery prep and recovery. The emails can ask patients or caregivers for feedback on specific issues that come up during recovery.
The doctors may write their own email scripts, as Newport Orthopedics' physicians did, or use the company's suggestions. An online dashboard helps doctors and administrators keep track of which patients are doing well and who might need more follow-up care.
A patient might see this message: "How are you? Let me know so I can make sure you're OK. I have four questions for you today." The answers to those questions can trigger a call from the doctor's office.
One of those calls may have been a lifesaver for David Larson, a Huntington Beach retiree. After Larson responded "yes" to an email that asked if he had calf pain after knee surgery, he got a call from his doctor's office telling him to come in immediately. An ultrasound confirmed he had a blood clot that could have landed him in the hospital — or worse. With treatment, the blood clot dissolved.
"There were times when it was like, 'Oh brother, they're contacting me again,' but none of this would have been caught if it wasn't for the email," said Larson, 66. "So it was more than worth it to me. Now I'm back to walking the dog, surfing, riding a bike."