Human Interaction vs Technology Automation: Do We Have to Pick a Side?

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When looking at improving patient satisfaction scores, human interaction and technology automation seem like opposing solutions, but both can play a role to elevate the patient experience and improve patient engagement.

Recent research has shown that simple authetic human elements like knowing a doctor’s name, proper etiquette, and having their eye contact can give patient satisfaction a boost. At the same time, HealthLeaders reports 3 out of 4 patients are clamoring to consult with their physicians by email, which might indicate that direct human interaction may not be necessary all the time.

Technology can be used, where appropriate, to automate and enhance as much of the patient’s healthcare journey as possible, including basics like completing forms and feedback surveys. At heart, healthcare is a social activity – people caring for others – so eliminating the human interaction from the process is not possible (or ideal!).

As Micah Solomon pointed out in a Forbes article, customer satisfaction is partly based on the number and types of human interactions that take place. He asks: “Which of the human interactions your employees offer add to the customer experience, and which just get in the way?” He talks about offloading the transactional [to technology] and using the freed up human capacity to provide deeper and more meaningful personal interactions.

This is where you can start to group your patients by their need and preferences – a big satisfier. Not every patient needs or wants a home visit or a personal phone call from a nurse navigator after they are discharged. Some do, but if you implement a program that treats all patients the same with high-touch follow ups, you may get better outcomes, but it’s also a recipe for high staffing costs. On the other end, if you only use automated technology for follow-up you will exclude patients without the means for digital access and can miss opportunities to prevent readmissions.

The solution is a balance between both worlds: Focus high-touch tactics only on the patients that want or need that personal attention. Other patients could be equally satisfied with a simple text or email check-in to see how they are doing. A segmented, multichannel approach – matching the right avenue to the way your patients would like to engage – can be a better way to go.

Using this kind of multi-pronged approach to interact with patients the way they prefer offers a solution that balances the best experience at the lowest costs. High-need patients can get the high-touch personal service they are looking for, while patients who don’t need special attention are comfortable and familiar with a “self-serve” do-it-yourself experience.

If using social media and other technologies is not part of your multi-pronged approach to patients, join us for our next free webinar: “Using Social Technologies To Engage Patients Across the Continuum of Care.”

Christina Thielst, FACHE, will explore the integration of social media and underlying technologies into a healthcare organization’s communication and patient engagement strategy. It will include a review of opportunities to leverage social media as tools for business intelligence, enhancing care coordination processes and facilitating effective communications. The role of social technologies in clinical and operational initiatives and processes across the entire care continuum and for improving health outcomes will be highlighted. Register now!


Actually we probably should pick sides. Face-to-face care, e.g., physicians and patients talking and listening to one another, and health IT (email, patient portals, text and health apps) are not equivalents and cannot be substituted one for another. Here’s why.

Most importantly, the act of sharing one’s fears and concerns behind the closed door of the exam room has therapeutic, healing benefits for the patient and clinician. Sir William Osler, the father of modern medicine advised medical students to “listen to patients because they will tell you what is wrong.” Today, a physician’s patient communication skills are considered to be as important as their clinical expertise. Why? Because talking – the exchange of information verbal and non-verbal between patient and clinician – is essential to accurately diagnosing and treating people. Can you accomplish the same thing with a robot or computer? Come on…

Abraham Verghese, MD., Standford physician and author, speaks eloquently about another aspect of face-to-face communications – the power of touch. The ability to feel the skin, tap the patient’s chest, exam lymph nodes, listen to the patient’s heart and lungs are essential to Verghese. Touch is therapeutic as well. Verghese warns that clinicians, gathered in a room full of computers, are often more concerned about the health of the “virtual or digital patient” – leaving the real patient in some hospital or exam room wondering where everyone is.

As for consumers saying in surveys that they want the ability to email their doctors…just understand that there’s a difference between expressing a wish (oh gee that would be nice) and a behavioral intention – I am leaving my doctor tomorrow because he/she doesn’t use email. Few ever follow through. Besides, that same research showed that the vast majority of patients wanted the ability to see their doctor face-to-face when they felt it was necessary.

The bottom line for me is that a strong trusting physician-relationship built upon high quality communications is the cornerstone of health care delivery. To the extent that health IT supports this relationship it has an enabling role. But I don’t see HIT receiving an Academy Award as best leading actor.

Steve Wilkins
Mind the gap

This is another way of practicing the “new golden rule”. The old golden rule is treat others how You would like to be treated. The new version is to treat people how They would like to be treated. You stated it above …
“start to group your patients by their need and preferences”
Have a full spectrum of connection, communication and follow up options available and allow the patient and their family to choose. Then give it to them exactly the way they want it. Just promise me one thing …

You won’t design a system that simply adds more tasks to the front line caregivers in the process … the front lines are collapsing and can’t take much more.

Dike Drummond MD



I think you amplified the point. People have different preferences in different situations and contexts. You appear to have a strong inclination for face time. But one size definitely doesn’t fit all. I want my ATM, my credit card, and the option to see a banker when I need to. If you told me I had to enjoy the delights of meeting my banker every time I needed to get something financial done, well … we all know how that story goes.
There is certainly a time and place for healing and therapeutic conversations but there is a lot of more mundane and transactional activity that doesn’t require (shouldn’t require!) interactions with high-value professionals. Even the professionals would say so. In a recent client survey, 90% of the care team relegated 80% of this kind of work off their shoulder to online tools.

And more interestingly on the question of that human interaction, if you ask today’s digital kids (or some young people) whether they would be examined by a robot. The answer for many is a resounding and excited “for sure”. Wait till you see the new synthetic interview technology developed at Carnegie Mellon University, hit mainstream.

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