Much of the country is beginning to reopen after weeks of staying home to help control the spread of COVID-19. Hospitals, health systems, and other healthcare providers are no exception as they seek to resume elective procedures and return to normal operations. Even the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) is encouraging healthcare facilities to reopen their doors to patients.  

“Returning to normal operations is important for the healthcare industry so that it can help patients avoid long-term complications they may have if they continue to delay care for chronic conditions, illnesses, and injuries,” says Jordan Pisarcik, vice president of growth and customer engagement at DocASAP.

At the same time, Pisarcik adds, getting back to normal will also help the healthcare industry recover from the massive losses it has sustained since the coronavirus pandemic forced it to cancel elective surgery and other normal operations in March.

Rick Pollack, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association (AHA), said hospitals in this country were losing as much as $50 billion per month because of COVID-19.

Returning To Normal May Not Be Easy

While the healthcare industry is eager to get back to normal, patients may not be as interested in returning to the way things were. In fact:

  • A recent study by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) showed that four out of five adults say they are concerned about contracting COVID-19 from another patient or visitor in a hospital emergency department.
  • Nearly one-third of adults (29%) told ACEP that they have avoided or delayed medical care because of concerns about the coronavirus. Other patients have delayed emergency care because they were concerned about adding to an already overloaded healthcare system.
  • A survey conducted in late May by the Alliance of Community Health Plans (ACHP) showed that 38% of adults would put care, treatment or procedures on hold for six months because of concerns about coronavirus. 
  • A poll by Gallup showed that 83% of Americans are either moderately concerned or very concerned about being exposed to COVID-19 at a doctor’s office or hospital. In contrast, 74% of adults have the same levels of concern about being exposed to coronavirus during the course of everyday life.

Rebuilding Patient Trust and Confidence Matters 

Health systems, medical practices, and other providers clearly have a lot of work ahead of them if they are to regain patient trust and bring them back for medical care, Pisarcik says.

“Healthcare providers must develop a comprehensive plan to help make patients feel comfortable and safe when visiting a hospital or doctor’s office,” he says. “Education and increased transparency will be key factors in any facility’s success in bringing patients back.”

What patients want to know

Klein & Partners and the Dieringer Research Group, Inc. asked more than 500 people their opinions as part of their May 2020 study titled “Coronavirus Omnibus research — How the Coronavirus is Impacting Healthcare Perceptions and Behaviors.” 

Respondents ranked their level of anxiety about contracting coronavirus in a care setting at 6.09 on a scale of 1 to 10.  The study went on to ask respondents what healthcare facilities could do to make them feel more at ease. The top-ranking answers were: 

  1. Practicing social distancing in the waiting room (44%)
  2. Seeing providers wearing masks and gloves (38%)
  3. Keeping COVID-19 patients in a separate area of the facility (33%)
  4. Being given a face mask and gloves when you arrive (28%)
  5. Waiting in your car until their appointment time (25%)

The same group of people was also asked what messages a healthcare facility could send them to decrease anxiety before a medical visit. The top answers to that question were:

  1. How to prepare for their visit and what to expect when they arrive and throughout the visit (47%)
  2. If any patients with coronavirus are being treated there and, if so, how those patients are receiving care in the facility (37%)
  3. How the staff and patients maintain social distancing in the facility (36%)
  4. Hope the facility is being cleaned and disinfected (35%)

“This is not the time to be vague in your communications,” Pisarcik says. “You need to be specific and tell patients the details of what you have done and the changes you’ve made.” 

Examples of those changes could include:

  • Reconfigured waiting areas
  • Staggered appointment slots
  • An upgraded heating and air conditioning system for better filtration and airflow
  • New cleaning protocols
  • Any changes to check-in, registration, paperwork, and workflows
  • When patients can use telehealth visits instead of a trip to the office

Use Many Communication Channels

Pisarcik says it’s important for hospitals, health systems, and practices to use as many communication channels as possible to answer patient questions and concerns. Those channels could include:

  • Email, text, or telephone outreach to help educate patients about current safety procedures and practices at every facility. These campaigns would be directed at consumers who have already been patients at a system or facility.
  • Website and media campaigns to reach entire markets with messages about what the hospital, health system, or practice is doing to enhance patient safety as a result of the pandemic.

Jefferson Health in Philadelphia, for example, has created a special COVID-19 page on its website that provides complete details about what it is doing in response to COVID-19 and to enhance patient safety. 

Alternatively, six health systems in the Los Angeles area joined together to create the “LA Is Better Together” website and media campaign to address the entire community on the topic of patient safety from a single source. 

Use Telemedicine As a Bridge

The use of telemedicine increased significantly during the coronavirus lockdowns and many consumers say they hope to continue using telehealth in the months ahead.  

When Sage Growth Partners conducted its third COVID-19 survey in late April, it found that 78% of those who used telehealth were satisfied with the experience and that 31% said it was better than an in-person visit.

With one-third of patients saying they feel comfortable visiting a doctor’s office in the wake of COVID-19, and 41% saying they are uncomfortable visiting a hospital, according to Sage, telehealth can help providers provide patients with an additional option and help practices regain some of the revenue they lost during the peak of the pandemic.

Next Steps

Hospitals and physician practices can help regain and increase patient confidence by adopting digital technology and tools to enhance the patient experience.

To get more information, insight, and ideas, download DocASAP’s new eBook Optimizing Patient Access to Care – Snapshots of Four Providers’ Initiatives and Results.’

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