Health system's online assistant helps patients find the right kind and level of care

Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin health system, headquartered in Milwaukee, knew that people increasingly are using the internet to find answers to their health-related questions, but are often challenged to find the right information or venue of care for their needs.

Staff recognized that there was an opportunity to make the process of navigating the health system easier for the community. One of the health system’s strategic priorities is to connect people in the community with the health system in a simple, streamlined manner, providing access points that range from virtual to traditional care, helping people get the right care faster.

“Traditional self-service care navigation rarely provides alternative methods for patients who may not fit the classical care pathway, and, not to mention, the options patients are most often presented with tend to have variable results,” said Kelly Stevenson, implementation manager with Inception Health, the innovation accelerator of the Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin health system.

“Froedtert & MCW health network sought to provide people with a trustworthy tool that would help patients personally triage their care journey, connecting patients with the right medical care at the right time.”

To help achieve its goals, the health system turned to health IT vendor Buoy Health. The vendor’s Buoy Assistant product is an AI-powered digital health assistant that provides guidance and information to patients while navigating them to appropriate care.

“Buoy’s technology solution offered an intelligent, AI-driven virtual triage tool, available to the public via Froedtert’s website, which supports care on an individual’s terms, builds trust, and drives operational efficiencies and growth by increasing referrals and routing people to appropriate venues of care,” Stevenson said.

The health system needed an easy and convenient way to connect with the community at the true ‘front door’ of care: Before they even considered going to the doctor, she added.

“It all begins with people searching for symptoms online, and Buoy’s interface could improve the individual’s triage experience before confusion and anxiety clouded decision making,” she said.

While people indeed are increasingly going to the internet to find answers to their health-related questions, they often get overwhelmed by the amount of information and misinformation out there.

Froedtert & The Medical College of Wisconsin health system implemented the new technology with the aim of providing a faster, smarter way to get information about health concerns without the hassle of endless, sometimes scary and even inaccurate online searching. Buoy Assistant was integrated directly into Froedtert’s public-facing website,, in February 2018.

“Health systems must ensure that all digital entry points are simple, easy and effectively lead to the appropriate next step.”

Kelly Stevenson, Inception Health

“People were given access to the product to better understand their symptoms and clarify their options for getting well,” Stevenson explained. “Today, people use the service anonymously via the Froedtert website to receive trustworthy guidance to the right care; for example, the pharmacy, same-day care or primary care services.”

In April 2019, the health system expanded use of the technology to include a specialized product for its own employees (eligible staff and dependents), which provides customized guidance based on coverage – for example, guidance to in-network provider searches, onsite wellness clinics and wellness programs such as smoking cessation health coaching.

Thousands of people in the community served by the health system have engaged with the online assistant with about 70% of them completing a full interview. The technology has actively changed people’s behaviors such that more than 30% of patients initially seeking out high-cost forms of care, such as emergency care and urgent care, were redirected to lower, condition-appropriate forms of care such as primary care and self-care.

The health system’s employee base has given the online assistant a rating of four out of five stars, and 78% of staff users agree with at least one of the matched conditions, illustrating high user trust, Stevenson said.

“While the intent of using the Buoy tool is only to help people navigate appropriately, this particular tool can influence the level of care that individuals ultimately intend to seek, and based on their user satisfaction scores, likely feel confident in that decision,” she said.

“A virtual triage capability can create an opportunity for health systems to guide people to the venues of care that meet their preferences and health needs,” she advised. “It is an important piece of a coordinated digital strategy aimed at providing value to people and earning trust and a preference for the health network.”

Some of the questions to consider when assessing this kind of tool, she said, include:

  • Do you want to allow people to use the tool anonymously?
  • Do you require interoperability with an EHR, CRM or scheduling service?
  • Do you require that the tool be usable through multiple channels, like web, app, etc.?
  • What level of customization can the tool accommodate for your community of users and health system services?

“Ultimately, health systems must ensure that all digital entry points are simple, easy and effectively lead to the appropriate next step,” she concluded.

Twitter: @SiwickiHealthIT
Email the writer: [email protected]
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.

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