Leveraging Technology to Improve Patient Engagement

By Renee Petrie | @reneepetrie

I’ll admit it. I love technology. For me, it’s about leveraging technology to do more things, better. I’ve worked in research for 25 years now, the last eight of which I’ve spent working for a software company that helps health researchers automate their studies and engage participants over time. By doing this, they improve data quality, operational efficiency, and patient engagement.

When I started my career in research, paper reigned. In fact, I spent much of my career replacing traditional survey modes (telephone, face-to-face, and mailed surveys) with the computerized alternatives, as new technologies emerged and gained adoption.  Flash back to 2000 and you may remember:

  • Only 53% of US adults had a cell phone. Think flip phone, not smartphone.
  • Only 62% of US adults used computers. Think desktop, not laptop.
  • Yet the vast majority of US adults used tablets. Think spiral bound and BIC pen, not iPad.

The Modern Era

Fast forward to today and everything has changed.  Technology is focused on access and convenience –  computing is at an all-time high with the average American (age 16-44) spending 7.4 hours staring at a screen each day, with a whopping 151 minutes of that time on their smartphones.  Jump on the bus or walk into a public place and you’ll see people fully engaged – with their phones. We literally live with our smartphones – working, shopping, socializing, and entertaining ourselves online.

“The average American spends 151 minutes staring at their smartphones.”
{Click to tweet}

I’m a total hypocrite when it comes to this use of technology.  If it’s dinnertime and I’m sitting down with my teenagers, I want them to put down their phones and focus on our relationship.  Yet every day, I help health researchers and providers think about how they can use technology to have more effective interactions and create sticky relationships with their patients. Rather than just capturing data from or about patients, lets think about leveraging technology to build and maintain relationships over time.

Make It Stick

Whether you are a researcher or a healthcare provider who is looking to more fully engage and retain patients over time, the technology you use will be critical to your overall success. You don’t have to look any further than the top 3 social networking sites (i.e. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn) to see how technology has become the glue of our social and professional relationships.  These sites have developed such a strong bond with their users that logging on and scrolling through their timeline is no longer a conscious task, but a daily habit. It is at this point that a sticky relationship forms, keeping your patients truly engaged.

There are many theories on leveraging technology to influence behavior and sticky relationships. Key elements that we focus on when developing our software include:

Disrupters like Uber have taught consumers that they can expect to get what they want, when they want it.  To engage patients and maintain effective relationships over time, you need to meet them where they are and replace paper forms completed in the clinic with electronic surveys and forms they can conveniently access from the clinic, home, work, or on the go.

The likelihood that a patient will engage is greatly influenced by the difficulty of the task.  The greater the effort, the less likely they are to engage.  ‘Sticky’ technology simplifies and reduces complexity and cognitive burden, making the ability of completing the desired behavior (e.g. completed surveys and forms) easier.

“The greater the effort, the less likely they are to engage.” {Click to tweet}

Even highly motivated patients can sometimes forget. External cues are often needed to trigger or remind a patient to complete an activity.  Triggers delivered via text message and email work well in today’s modern era of connected patients. Their effectiveness can be improved by tailoring, based on what you know about the patient and their preferences.

Facebook is a great example of the stickiness of investment. Over time, photos and status updates become your electronic journal and photo album, documenting your life story, and creating a motivation to continue adding to this story. Patients who invest in reporting on their health and activity over time store valuable information. Delivering real-time insights from this information can serve as a powerful motivator for engagement.


We’ll be diving deeper into leveraging technology and the four components of the sticky model over the next few blogs and sharing customer examples that illustrate how these concepts are being put into action. In the meantime, we think you’d be interested in Hooked, by Nir Eyal, or the Fogg Behavioral Model. Tell us what you think in the comments below about these concepts and how you may use them, or examples of ‘sticky’ technology that you use daily.

Leveraging Technology to Improve Patient Engagement

Renee helps customers apply DatStat technology solutions across health research and patient-centered population health management.  Before joining DatStat, she spent 17 years in working at nationally recognized research centers. While at University of Washington’s Social Development Research Group (SDRG), she set the standard for maximizing engagement and retention in landmark longitudinal studies. Renee now combines her practical research experience and a fascination with technology to help customers understand how to leverage technology in patient interactions to create ‘sticky’ relationships – ultimately achieving better engagement and outcomes.

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