All entries for February 2018

February 02, 2018

Where to start with digital communication with patients?

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Design a bespoke platform for your clinical service or use existing digital systems?

One answer is to do both! Evidence from our empirical study [1] suggests that when introducing digital communication with patients, changing the working patterns of the clinical team is the difficult part. There needs to be adaptation and flexibility, both on the side of the clinical team and on the side of the new intervention - the digital communication system.[2] The ideal might be, for example, a bespoke patient portal. By introducing some elements of the patient portal using existing digital systems gives time for change in work patterns. It also provides insights for the design of the portal. Patients interviewed in the LYNC study continued to use digital communication channels with their clinical team if they were confident the clinical team would respond.[1] So, if we want patients to use a patient portal the clinical team has to be responsive from the moment it is launched.

Consider this example. An oncologist wants to develop a patient portal that can

  • Store for patient viewing, the patients individualised treatment plan and any updates
  • Provide information for patients to read about their treatment including when to contact the clinical team
  • Send reminders for patients receiving chemotherapy for blood tests, chemo sessions and review appointments
  • Enable patients to view their blood test results and analysis of trends
  • Enable the patient to contact the clinical team when they have symptoms of concern.

At the back end of the patient portal, the clinicians want to:

  • View the patients clinical notes while on the move to inform their response to patients contacting them
  • Enter information about patient encounters in the clinical notes while on the move.

The oncologist has already identified potential savings from this innovation including reduction in wastage of chemotherapy drugs and reduction in number of A&E attendances.

Oncology patients have a lot to deal with, so a patient portal where everything they need is in one place seems ideal – although we need to check this with patients. Not everyone in the clinical team is as engaged with the idea as our oncologist but there are some potential quick wins that might persuade them. For example, text message reminders improve patient attendance at clinic appointments.[3] The hospital already has a reminder system for standard outpatient appointment. Could the existing system be used to send reminders for blood tests and non-routine appointments?

Testing out the use of video-conferencing using the existing hospital system would allow the enthusiasts in the oncology team to firstly work out how to integrate it into their work pattern and secondly, to assess how much advantage it provides over telephone – is it a necessary part of the patient platform? In the LYNC study we undertook a scoping review of videoconferencing.[1)] Patients mostly like it and sometimes it improves health outcome, but it does not usually save clinician time or save money. However, where there is a specific reason for using it, for example saving travel time for appointments, it can be of benefit. In our example the availability of videoconferencing might provide more information about a patient’s condition than telephone, so the clinician might be able to reduce the number of patients making a trip to the hospital.

Evidence from the LYNC study [4] suggests patients benefit from being able to engage digitally (email, text, mobile phone) with their clinical team when they most need it. This service can be offered using existing systems – hospital email and mobile phones. What is difficult is working out who is going to respond to patient contacts, when and where. Come the launch of the patient portal any new work patterns need to be well established. Our LYNC study Quick Reference Guides [5] suggest what needs to be thought through when offering patients digital engagement with their clinical team.

All innovation needs resource for its implementation. I have suggested digital engagement with patients is introduced in small steps. A danger is that the resources needed for implementation of the small steps is ignored so the innovations fail or the enthusiasts bear the burden. When a new digital system is introduced in one go, the resource needed for implementation is less easy to ignore.

-- Frances Griffiths, Professor of Medicine in Society and Penny Kechagioglou, the Oncologist


  1. Griffiths F, Armoiry X, Atherton H, Bryce C, Buckle A, Cave J, et al. The role of digital communication in patient-clinician communication for NHS providers of specialist clinical services for young people (The LYNC study): a mixed methods study. NIHR Journals Library Publications, HS&DR. 2018 in press.
  2. May CR, Johnson M, Finch T. Implementation, context and complexity. Implementation Science. 2016;11(1):141.

  3. Guy R, Hocking J, Wand H, Stott S, Ali H, Kaldor J. How Effective Are Short Message Service Reminders at Increasing Clinic Attendance? A Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review. Health Services Research. 2012;47(2):614-32.
  4. Griffiths F, Bryce C, Cave J, Dritsaki M, Fraser J, Hamilton K, et al. Timely digital patient-clinician communication in specialist clinical services for young people: a mixed-methods study (the LYNC study). Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2017;19(4).

  5. LYNC study team. LYNC Study Quick Reference e-book and Topic Guides: University of Warwick; 2017 [10th June 2017]. Available from:

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