The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted patient acquisition. To contain the outbreak and enforce social distancing, healthcare organizations cancelled elective surgeries and in-person appointments, and they adopted strict triage procedures to prevent non-coronavirus patients from visiting care settings in-person. While necessary, Harvard researchers found that these precautions caused a nearly 60% decline in in-person patient volume.

As some regions of the United States prepare to reopen businesses and providers look towards a new normal, they may experience disruption again–this time from a surge of patient demand. 

The Backlog of Postponed Appointments due to COVID-19

Though patient volume has plummeted since mid-March, the demand for care never truly disappeared. Consumers have merely delayed treatment they still need, cancelling appointments with the expectation of rescheduling them when it is safe to do so in their area.

According to the Klein & Partners survey “How is the Coronavirus Impacting Healthcare Perceptions and Behaviors,” an average 59% of patients cancelled a procedure or appointment due to coronavirus. However, only a portion of those patients have successfully rescheduled these appointments:

  • Elective Surgery: 40% of patients who cancelled elective surgeries are waiting to reschedule; 16% report they were unable to reschedule; 0% changed their appointments to virtual visits. 
  • Screening Visits: 43% of patients who cancelled a screening visit still need to reschedule; 16% say they couldn’t reschedule; 4% changed their appointments to virtual visits. 
  • Annual Physicals: 35% of patients who cancelled annual physicals still need to reschedule; 14% say they were unable to reschedule; 7% changed their appointments to virtual visits. 

Klein & Partners also reported that 47% of patients say they will ‘definitely’ schedule an office visit to their primary care doctor after coronavirus. 

Postponing elective surgeries and annual physical exams are one thing, but what about chronic care management? Evidation revealed in its COVID-19 Pulse Report that 33% of chronic disease patients cancelled or missed previously scheduled appointments due to the pandemic. These missed appointments can negatively impact patient outcomes and disrupt care compliance, making chronic illness patients all the more eager to see their doctors again.   

Add up these trends, and the industry is facing a deluge of pent-up demand that could overwhelm providers if they aren’t prepared. 

How Health Systems, Health Plans, and Provider Groups Can Prepare to Receive More Patients 

Per the latest CMS guidelines, providers can gradually accept non-coronavirus patients for elective procedures if their area has low or stable incidences of COVID-19. However, providers must still exercise caution and adhere to social distancing protocols wherever they can. 

These patient access strategies will help healthcare organizations manage the incoming flow of patients while keeping healthcare workers safe. 

1) Enable Online Appointment Scheduling to Relieve Call Center Volume

WebMD reported that the pandemic flooded healthcare access centers with calls; one health system said it receives 5,600-6,000 calls per day. Ahead of resuming elective procedures, providers should enable online appointment scheduling to fill reopened appointment slots while managing call center volume. 

When a DocASAP survey asked patients what aspects of scheduling care with a provider they found the most challenging, 42% said that it takes too long to schedule an appointment by phone. Another 43% said they could not schedule appointments during a call center’s business hours. 

Online scheduling allows patients to self-schedule appointments instantly according to their own schedule, including after hours. It also decreases the number of tickets at a call center, enabling staff to respond to more patient calls faster and with more accuracy.  

2) Use Appointment Reminders to Communicate New Policies 

As patients reschedule deferred appointments, they will be wondering how their visit will take place in healthcare’s new normal.

Will patients need to wear a mask during their appointment? Will they be provided one? Do they need to be screened for COVID-19 before entering the facility? Can they submit patient intake paperwork over email?

Pre-appointment reminders can communicate the answers to these questions before a patient leaves their home. For example, a text reminder can instruct patients to wait in their cars instead of the care setting waiting room to minimize social contact. Providers should use digital channels instead of phone calls to communicate this information. According to a DocASAP survey, 52% of patients prefer to receive pre-appointment communication via email or text message than over the phone. 

3) Manage Patient Volume with Alternate Care Options

Alternate care options such as telemedicine have gone mainstream during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they will remain an integral part of the patient experience moving forward. 

When it comes to using alternate care options, patients value convenience and flexibility. A DocASAP survey revealed that even if a patient’s primary care provider was available, they would consider other care options: 

  • 50% phone consultation
  • 47% different doctor at same practice
  • 45% video consultation
  • 45% urgent care
  • 44% retail or walk-in clinic

Coronavirus has only increased the patient appetite for alternate care options. Telemedicine in particular has exploded in usage; Forrester predicts that virtual visits will exceed 20 billion by 2021. Providers should leverage these care options to give patients more avenues for accessing timely care. 

Learn More About Increasing Patient Volume

Want to learn more about adapting patient access procedures due to COVID-19? Access our on-demand webinar “How Health Systems Are Responding to COVID-19” to learn how four healthcare leaders responded to the COVID-19 crisis:

  • Best practices for assessing patients for COVID-19 symptoms
  • The importance of care-driven outreach during health crises
  • Winnings strategies for patient and community engagement

To get more information, insight, and ideas on renewing patient volume, access the full webinar recording.


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