Patient engagement is a hot topic in health care today. And digital tools that let patients manage and improve their health are booming, from health apps to patient portals to wearable fitness trackers like the Fitbit and Jawbone.

However, statistics reveal that while initial interest in digital health tools is high, the abandonment rate is also high. Statistics show that as many as 50 percent of people who own a digital health device no longer use it, and 30 percent stop using it within the first six months. Mayo Clinic, a pioneer of patient portals, initially struggled with getting patients to actually use the technology to access their health records once they signed up.

Why is this? And what steps can you take to attract patients to your patient portals or digital patient education programs — and keep them actively engaged?

Focus on behaviors
A recent article for MedCityNews shares lessons learned from a failed online exercise motivation program. The author concludes that the biggest flaw was that her team had designed the program for an outcome: to enable people to exercise more. What they should have done was design for behavior, laying out a specific strategy to reach the desired goal of increased exercise.

What motivates users of a digital health program? It might not be what you think. If they yearn to connect with others in order to reach their weight loss goal, then offering a free water bottle as an incentive won’t work. And if your practice’s goal for patient engagement is simply to meet the minimum requirements for Meaningful Use 2 (MU2), that’s not going to work either. There has to be some payoff for the users or patients.

Previously, we’ve discussed common mistakes that doctors make in their patient education efforts. Assuming you have truly made an effort to listen to your patients and understand what they want, how do you get them to act? How do you make sure they actually watch that video or share that link with their families?

Three ways to get patients to take action
First, you need to define the target behaviors you want from patients. For example, the author of the MedCityNews article suggests developing a series of small, specific behaviors that will help users reach their ultimate goal, such as, “eat one apple a day,” or “log minutes exercised every Tuesday after lunch.” The simpler you make the behavior, the more likely someone will engage.

Second, you need to consider what will trigger patients to “act now” and actually follow through on that behavior. This could be an external trigger, like an email reminder or text alert, or an internal trigger, like a feeling or thought. Figuring out how a behavior can be triggered takes some trial and error, but it’s crucial for engagement.

Then, if you want people to act more than once, you need to find ways to reinforce and reward them for repeating the behavior. This is especially important if you’re trying to create new habits. Again, this takes some experimentation. Are patients motivated by verbal feedback from you? Would they share your patient education content with five friends in order to earn a gift card?

Think “define, trigger, reward,” as you’re considering what actions and outcomes you want from your patients.

Get help getting the message out
If the clinicians in your practice are the primary — or only — ones involved in engaging and educating patients, you’re probably not getting the best results. When doctors have just minutes with each patient in the exam room, it doesn’t make sense to take up valuable time explaining how to access or use your patient education program or portal. Patients may feel rushed and confused, and forget what you told them once they leave their appointment.

You’ll see better results if the rest of your staff shares the responsibility for getting the message out about your digital health initiatives. The authors of a study on increasing patient portal use told the American Academy of Family Physicians, “It was interesting that while doctor endorsement was perceived as important by patients for getting online, it was really more effective if nurses, phone center, and front-desk staff, rather than the doctor, promoted the portal.”

The more people who spread the word about your digital resources more frequently, the more apt your patients will be to engage and consistently use these digital tools. To find out more about how technology can help you improve patient education and benefit your practice, subscribe to our newsletter.