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Health services need customer experience management too

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15th Oct 2012
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Chris Stephens, CEO of iHealth Exchange, explains how its use of social media tools for secure patient/doctor/hospital links works across the board.

With pressure to work in an increasingly commercial environment Doctors’ practices, and in particular those operating in the USA, now face as many customer relationship management issues as any other business. In some circumstances it can be argued that the pressures are more complex, as they often sit between the patient and the hospital, acting as conduit between them and acting under the edict of Federal law.
There are now a series of US Government-mandated bodies and processes that all US patient care operations have to comply with or be part of. The key one is to be part of a local Health Information Exchange (HIE). These are the repositories for all Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) associated with patients, and the Government mandate now requires all patient records to be EMRs as opposed to paper records, and all communications between the patient, the frontline doctor’s practice and any subsequent healthcare services provider, such as a hospital or specialist consultant or clinic, has to be managed via the HIE.
This process is designed to ensure that whatever communications transmitted between the three parties must go to the right people and can only be seen by those people unless the patient decides to allow others access to the information. And while this creates an environment where patient privacy is well protected and communications between the parties effective, it also makes the relationship between the patient as customer, and both the doctors and hospitals as service providers, a complex management issue.
This in turn has led to the growth of a new business sector providing tools to manage these processes on behalf of doctors. This is the role now taken by Houston-based iHealth Exchange, which is using social media technology to build a very specific form of CRM system where secure, accurate and precisely targeted communications are a crucial objective.
The primary tool it is using is Tibco’s Tibbr social media environment, which has primarily been designed to provide a more controlled and manageable analogy of Facebook for use within a business framework – for example the staff within an enterprise, plus selected external participants such as staff from business partners, suppliers or customers, where appropriate.
This makes it a good tool for managing not only classic CRM operations, but also the newer, extended version of monitoring and managing the all-round customer experience of a business. It is also well suited to the HIE environment as well, according to iHealth’s president and CEO, Chris Stephens, speaking at Tucon, Tibco’s recent user conference in Las Vegas.
“The US Government mandate insists that all messages can be shared securely with those that need to see them, and that only those with the right permissions can actually view them,” he said. “This was quite a big risk of messages getting lost, or the wrong people reading them, in the days of paper, post and fax transmission. All Doctors in the USA now buy into the advantages of EMR and using HIE.”
Scaling up
One specific advantage of Tibbr that iHealth has exploited is its flexibility, which allows it to be re-purposed for a company’s specific requirements. According to Stephens, for example, iHealth has re-protocol’d so that it now works with the Direct protocol specified by the US Government.
This specifies the use of encrypted emails as the communication mechanism for everything sent over HIE. In practice the structure iHealth has established is that Tibbr is used to manage the delivery and receipt of messages, plus the policies surrounding the authentication of the recipient and their right to receive the specific type of information contained in the message. But the message itself is contained within a Direct protocol-encrypted email.
One key advantage of this approach is that it avoids the trap is requiring recipients to be using the same tools as the sender. This a common tactic for software companies, where all ends of the communications chain are required to run the same set of tools, and sometimes the exact same version.
“Recipients do not need to be on Tibbr to work with iHealth in the HIE,” Stephens said. “They just need to be able to receive, and send, Direct protocol emails.”
In fact, he indicated that this would work in any environment where a common encryption protocol is selected and used. So it would work just as well in other business areas so long as they all use the same encryption protocol. At a minimum it would only require the business holding the role of aggregator between customer and a range of possible suppliers to use tools such as iHealth’s Tibbr-based service.
Stephens agreed that this is a straightforward and relatively simple model to build which can be easily applied to most other areas of business where secure communications between customers and multiple business partners are a vital part of the business model. It is easy to see analogies between how iHealth works – patient works with Doctor to locate most appropriate hospital, clinic or consultant to resolve a specific health issue – and many other forms of business.
Using a tool like Tibbr applies equally well to any business where a business acts as an intermediary or aggregator of products or services from a range of suppliers, adding value by advising the customers in the capabilities and suitabilities of each potential supplier – be that based on the qualities of the product itself or the price to paid for it – and helping that customer to identify and select the most appropriate supplier.
And though the iHealth solution is in healthcare, that does not mean scaling issues are irrelevant. Though the company is only just out of start-up mode and still largely confined to the Houston area, the city as a whole contains over 300 hospitals and clinics, and many more individual consultants from which patients can choose.
“Scaling up the system is not an issue,” Stephens said. “This is in fact fairly easy as the management component is automated and therefore not labour intensive. It means that we can take the system and apply in different cities and different states where the regulatory environment may be slightly different. Making the necessary changes is straight forward. We are still learning the range of communications patterns required between patients, Doctors and hospitals, but we have plans to automate them within Tibbr once we are sure that the patterns are stable. That will make scaling out to other states and other areas of healthcare even easier. All we will require is a small sales force for any new market.”

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