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Emerging Idea

Self-service solutions in health care

15 Minute Read


The idea

Self-service solutions enable patients and members to complete tasks and solve problems while providing a high-quality digital experience. The health care industry hasn’t adopted self-service solutions as widely as other industries have.

The promise

Self-service solutions help drive digital transformation and give patients a greater role in their health care experiences. Allowing patients to take on more health care tasks also takes some of the burden off health care workers, which gives them more time to focus on more complex, high-level tasks.

Why now

Consumers are demanding better digital experiences that mimic the solutions they are used to in all other aspects of their lives. At the same time, health care organizations need to take advantage of digital solutions to deal with workforce challenges.

Reality check

Health care is notoriously slow to change—and there are many reasons for that. First, it’s difficult to know where to start when it comes to self-service solutions and better digital experiences because there aren’t any clear guidelines. Change management is a challenge because providers can be resistant to change (especially change that they perceive to mean a loss of autonomy) and many patients don’t automatically turn to self-service in health care because they aren’t used to it as an option. On top of all that, health care is complex and new digital solutions take time to take off.


What is it?

Self-service refers to a user’s ability to solve their own problems, make decisions, and perform tasks autonomously. In health care, patients or members could use self-service solutions to answer questions about their benefits coverage or schedule their own appointments.

For self-service solutions to be effective, patients must have confidence that the solution will work and that they can use the solution. Digital is often a primary component of self-service, but the most successful self-service solutions are hybrid models with a human touch available for support. Patients shouldn’t be forced to self-serve if they don’t want to, and there should be an easy and obvious “off-ramp” for them to call someone for help when needed.

While most people have experienced self-service in some aspect of their lives, like online deposits in banking, self-service hasn’t taken off in health care. That’s beginning to change as health care organizations start to explore self-service solutions that mimic those out-of-industry experiences.


Why now?

Several factors are increasing the urgency to implement self-service solutions.

Rising expectations for consumer experiences: Health care leaders have felt pressure to improve digital experiences for years now. This pressure only increased during the pandemic as consumers started to experience more digital solutions with the rise of remote experiences in the health care and non-health aspects of their lives.

Consumers are also used to self-service in other industries, and they want to see it in health care—and some disruptors are starting to deliver. For example, retail clinics allow patient to schedule flu shots online. Health care organizations face the rising risk that they will lose out on patient loyalty if they don’t start to deliver similar or better experiences.

Increasing burdens on the workforce: All health care organizations are also struggle with rising administrative burden and clinician burnout. That burnout is partially responsible for the looming workforce shortages. There’s a 3.2M worker shortage predicted by 2026. Leaders are turning to technology as the realize that it’s unstainable for organizations to keep operating as usual.

Self-service solutions could relieve the burden on the workforce by allowing consumers to take on some tasks frees up time for staff, who can then focus on the more engaging top-of-license work. For example, when patients can schedule their own appointments, front desk staff can avoid the time-consuming task of combing through calendars.


Why not yet?

Self-service solutions are not well adapted in health care for a few reasons.

Paternalistic nature of health care is at odds with patients self-serving. Health care by its nature is a very paternalistic industry. That’s starting to change slowly, but some physicians still struggle to accept new solutions that threaten their autonomy and give patients more control. Scheduling is a prime example—online scheduling requires physicians to open their calendars which many physicians are reluctant to do.

Self-service is not a default behavior in health care. Organizations sometimes struggle getting patients to adopt new self-service solutions for a couple of reasons. On one hand, patients aren’t used to having self-service as an option in health care, so they don’t know when it exists and where to seek it out. In other cases, patients have been let down by difficult or confusing digital experiences in the past, so they assume available solutions won’t work. In both these cases, patients opt out of available self-service solutions.

The complexity and dynamism of health care make for difficult implementations. Complex relationships and misaligned incentives between stakeholders makes necessary collaboration difficult. Payers and providers might not be able to collaborate on a billing system, leaving patients confused when they get multiple reminders about a bill they’ve already paid. To make things harder, health care doesn’t have the same level of backend processes, like interoperable data sharing, that other industries use to support self-service solutions, so standing up these solutions requires intense upfront preparation.

“Risk-stupid” or risk-averse leaders are hesitant to invest. Leaders underestimate the benefits of self-service solutions and overestimate the negative impacts of implementing new technology. And, because self-service solutions aren’t widely adopted, there’s limited data that shows immediate, short-term ROI, which makes it hard to justify upfront investment.


Early adopters

MedStar Health
Health system spanning 300 locations

b.well Connected Health
Digital health platform company


MedStar Health launched a patient experience platform to help patients schedule appointments and keep track of their health care information.


The traditional process for scheduling health care appointments is confusing and difficult. Patients first struggle to use provider directories to find in-network providers. Then once they find a provider, patients usually have to call the office and sit through a lot of back-and-forth to find an available appointment (which is often weeks or months away).

MedStar worked with b.well Connected Health to create a simpler experience. Patients can use the app or website to view physicians’ ratings, choose a provider, and schedule appointments—all without calling an office. The solution goes even further, allowing patients to check-in online ahead of their appointment and view their records.

The solution is off to a great start, with about half of the app users using the solution to schedule an appointment during off hours.

Technology solution

Cedar offers a billing solution that integrates information from providers and payers to create a seamless payment experience for patients.

Online billing

Health care billing is a notoriously bad experience for patients. There’s little to no price transparency ahead of visits and then confusing and conflicting information about when and how to pay bill.

Cedar works with health care organizations to offer a payment solution that eliminates confusion and makes it simpler to pay bills. Cedar integrates provider and payer data into one single view so patients can see all their information and pay their bills in one place. Cedar makes it even easier for patients by sending reminders to pay bills and providing information about things like HSA balances and answers to common benefits questions.

The simplicity of solution makes it easier for patients to pay their bills without help, which increases payment yield and frees up staff time to focus and serve more complex patients.


Should you pursue this idea? 

Every organization could benefit from self-service solutions, but specific organizational priorities will determine which self-service elements will be most impactful. For instance, organizations that are focusing on retaining patients might want to choose self-service elements that enhance patient convenience, like self-scheduling. Or organizations that are targeting their workforce might explore self-service solutions that extend staff capacity, like chatbots for patient intake.

Self-service can help drive digital transformation, increase patient satisfaction, and support staff by extending capacity. But those benefits are only possible if there is a clear roadmap in place and organizations are prepared to collaborate with all necessary stakeholders.


What we’re keeping an eye out for

As self-service in health care plays out, here’s what would be needed to make self-service a viable option.

Build an off-ramp: Although self-service is often digital-first, it should still be easy for users to get human support when they need it. Sometimes that human support is needed upfront to guide users to the right self-service solution, but other times users will need to switch from completing a task on their own to getting help. In these cases, the experience should feel like on seamless experience—don’t require the user to start from the beginning.

Build around patient, not organization: Too many digital solutions, including self-service solutions, are designed around the inefficiencies of health care organization, and those inefficiencies are imposed onto the patients. For example, solutions don’t typically guide patients through health care transitions, especially when those transitions are between stakeholders. These solutions fail because they are too hard to use, so they don’t encourage needed adoption.

Use it to address digital inequity: Patients’ desire and ability to interact with health care is on a spectrum. Some are more independent and want to use self-service to find information, solve their own problems, and complete their own tasks. On the other side of the spectrum are less independent patients who might not know how to use or might feel uncomfortable using self-service solutions. These patients will need and appreciate extra support. Allowing independent patients to self-serve frees up staff’s time to help patients who need the most help. With the right amount of support, all patients can access the care they need, with better, and hopefully more equitable, outcomes.

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