• Article
  • February 1, 2019

Use These Digital Tips to Build Engagement with Patient Families

Children's hospitals should be where their patients and families are—in a digital world.

New ways to connect with families

To seamlessly reach parents and families, consider adopting these methods of communication:

  • Direct online scheduling
  • Secure apps that improve interoperative communication
  • App-based symptom checker
  • Online wait times for urgent care and emergency departments 
  • Text messaging service that sends appointment reminders or information about procedures and appointments
  • Online bill payment
  • Electronic appointment check-in
  • Secure video conferencing capabilities so parents can always be at their child's bedside even when they can't be at the hospital

By Tricia Geraghty and Neal Linkon

An informal survey in Children's Hospital of Wisconsin's Emergency Department (ED) and urgent care clinics revealed not one staff member could remember the last family that came in without at least one smartphone; most families had several, and some had no computer at home. That was five years ago. As a pediatric enterprise facing competition in the marketplace, consumer tendencies can't be ignored. Digital communication will transform everything hospitals do—from marketing to clinical care to customer service. Offering families a variety of digital conveniences is crucial.

Checking symptoms

Children's Hospital of Wisconsin created Children's OnCall, an app based on the Barton-Schmitt protocols. It's a symptom checker that guides parents to the appropriate care for what ails their children. It also offers direct links to the hospital's ED and urgent care locations and the ability to find a provider. Parents can create profiles for their children and store allergy and medication information. Parents have downloaded Children's OnCall nearly 10,000 times.

Managing wait times

The hospital introduced online wait times and reservations for urgent care centers. A tool on the hospital's website allows parents to see the current wait time at urgent care clinics and the drive time from their current location. The system tracks how things are going at the clinics, and adjusts the schedule and wait times accordingly. It notifies the family via text if there's an unusually long delay and when it's time to leave home to come to the clinic.

Even walk-ins benefit—when wait times are long, families can leave and get a text message alerting them when it's time to come back. When the hospital launched this service, one of the urgent care locations was getting more than half of the overall visits, and there was always a crowd waiting at the door when it opened each day. Today, up to half of all slots are booked online using the tool, and it has led to a 25 percent increase in urgent care utilization, while also leveling the demand across the clinics. Staff members report complaints about wait times have virtually disappeared.

digital technology

Technology and apps help hospitals connect with families

Children's hospitals are using technology that helps them better engage in family-centered care, all while catering to a growing, technology savvy patient and family population.

Texts and reminders

Children's Wisconsin offers a service that texts reminders and information before and after a procedure or appointment and allows for manually sent texts during a procedure. A test by the ENT team showed families that signed up for the service had a zero readmit rate after tonsillectomies; other families had a double-digit readmit rate. Now, more than 50 clinics are using the service, and they have sent more than 40,000 texts.

Families rate the experience better than 4.5 on a 5-point scale. "What parent hasn't gone home and asked themselves, ‘I know I asked that question, but I can't remember what the doctor said.' The texts answered all my questions." The service has expanded to some unexpected areas. For example, the bereavement team is sending supportive and inspirational notes to families, and families appreciate the option.

Beefing up the patient portal

The hospital is building up the functionality available within MyChart. Registrations from primary care patients have reached 50 percent, and the hospital expects to see more growth as it makes appointments available. The hospital added features like bill payment and eCheck-in. Within 24 hours of making eCheck-in available, families used it nearly 200 times, and that was before any marketing or communication launched.

Self-service scheduling

All primary care providers at Children's Wisconsin offer direct online scheduling, so families can pick their slot via the website or MyChart. That includes new patient appointments and "meet and greets" for parents not yet ready to commit. In the first two months, nearly 10 percent of all primary care appointments were scheduled online.

Tricia Geraghty, is chief marketing officer, and Neal Linkon is director, Marketing Operations, at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin. Send questions or comments.