Boston-based Partners HealthCare is spending at least $100 million on a broad new digital health initiative designed to improve the patient experience and make care more efficient, part of a growing movement to infuse 21st-century technology into health care.
Partners officials said the five-year initiative will allow patients to book appointments online, communicate with providers through video and text, and access doctors’ notes. It will provide cost estimates for procedures, publicize wait times at hospital emergency departments and urgent care centers, and simplify the sharing of medical records with non-Partners providers, they said.
Partners already offers digital tools for patients, including a “Patient Gateway” website; the health system plans to build on and add to them.
The initiative also includes a renewed focus on artificial intelligence and analytics, including data crunching to help hospitals manage patient flow and track revenue.
Partners is among health systems across the country that are ramping up digital health programs, in a bid to draw and retain patients while finding efficiencies that can slash costs. In part, health care providers are responding to the expectations of younger tech-savvy consumers.
“The goal is to have a really materially different feel for the patient in terms of how they consume health care services — be that in the clinic, in the hospital, or in their home with their families,” said Dr. Alistair Erskine, chief digital health officer at Partners.
Erskine said the effort will result in “a dramatic growth in virtual care,” including virtual appointments, as well as remote monitoring for patients with chronic diseases — such as using Bluetooth-enabled scales to track the weight of patients with heart failure.
Such programs could lower costs if they help to manage patients’ medical conditions and reduce hospital visits.
Partners is budgeting $100 million for the first 18 months of the project, and Erskine said his team will seek more funding as needed.
The largest health care provider in Massachusetts, Partners is the parent of a dozen hospitals, including Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s. Digital health is one of several new initiatives at Partners. The nonprofit health system plans to rebrand next year under a new name: Mass General Brigham. It is also planning to open several new outpatient clinics.
The health care industry has been slow to move into the digital age, compared with other sectors such as retail, travel, and banking. That’s partly because health care is a highly regulated field, and it involves sensitive personal information, Erskine said.
“Health care has a long way to go before it catches up to other industries,” he added.
There are plenty of challenges. Health systems must work to ensure they’re not adding to disparities by improving services only for patients who have smartphones, and they must try not to increase the burden on busy doctors and nurses.
Over the last several years, hospital systems have moved patient records from paper to electronic systems. But these software systems are often clunky and complex. Doctors have blamed the technology for contributing to exhaustion and burnout.
Partners spent $1.2 billion to implement new electronic health records software at all of its hospitals and clinics. The effort initially exasperated clinicians and slowed hospital operations.
“There’s still opportunities to improve and reduce clicks,” said Erskine, who joined Partners last year from the Geisinger health system in Pennsylvania.
Digital health is a focus for many health care providers, but so far much of the work has been in pilot programs. Now, hospital systems are looking for a return on their investments in digital health, through reduced costs and higher revenues, said Gurpreet Singh, US health services sector leader at the consulting firm PwC.
If health care providers fail to use technology to become more consumer-friendly, they could lose business. “The consumer does have a lot more choice than they used to,” Singh said.
In addition, health care providers are working on algorithms to identify high-risk patients and manage their health. Partners, since 2017, has been developing artificial intelligence programs with GE Healthcare.
Partners’ competitors across the country are also focused on digital health. The Minnesota-based Mayo Clinic, for example, is working on technology that allows patients to receive hospital care at home, said Dr. John Halamka, the incoming president of Mayo Clinic Platform.
Halamka, who spent more than 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said hospitals must embrace technology as a means of lowering costs and improving care.
“We need to put a lot of investment into pivoting a bricks-and-mortar business into a digital business,” he said. “The future of health care means that not only do we need to be empathetic care providers, but we need to be digital and data businesses.”