Guest Column | June 15, 2021

Changing Patient Communications Preferences And The Race For Providers To Adapt

By Josh Weiner, CEO of SR Health by Solutionreach

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The Japanese scholar Kakuz┼Ź Okakura once said, “The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.” Or to put it in more colloquial terms—change sucks, but it’s a part of life, so deal with it.

It’s remarkable that even in our fast-paced, on-demand digital world where seemingly constant shifts require us to continually adapt and adjust, some changes are just more arduous than others. Take, for example, the rollercoaster we’ve been on for the past year and a half because of the COVID pandemic. The collective sucker punch to humanity’s gut has forced us to reexamine how we respond to massive, life-changing events and circumstances which jeopardize the entire planet.

In the silver lining department, however, it’s also given us a chance to reevaluate our lives and our priorities. This includes everything from where and how we work, how we spend our free time, how we approach our finances, and how we view the role of healthcare in our lives.

But in a post-pandemic reality, we often forget the unseen damage the threat of the virus inflicted on patients who deferred care because they felt it wasn’t safe to make a doctor’s visit. A recent poll found 66 percent of patients delayed or canceled medical appointments during COVID, mainly due to fear of getting infected. Eighty-three percent of those who postponed care were due for preventive screenings and chronic care management for things like cancer, lung disease, and diabetes. Those gaps in care are extremely costly both for individual outcomes and in the compounded medical expenses from delayed care.

Yet in all the life-altering changes wrought by the virus—whether they be related to healthcare, economics, society, or culture—there’s also been palpable seismic activity when it comes to patient communication preferences. A new survey by SR Health by Solutionreach and HIMSS, “Patient Communication Preferences in 2021,” found preferences have continued to shift during COVID. Survey data showed patients want more digital communication, especially text messaging. It also revealed that age continues to be less of a barrier to using electronic forms of communication. However, some of the most striking insights include the following:

  • More than one-third of patients are willing to switch providers to receive more modern communication like real-time text messaging.
  • Patients under the age of 50 are most likely to switch providers, at 64 percent.
  • But 33 percent of patients aged 50 and up are also willing to switch providers for more modern, digital communication.

That’s quite a sea change in people’s attitudes about provider communication for an industry that typically counts on patient loyalty for retention. Patients expect modern options to connect with providers for scheduling, appointments, and billing matters—and they’re willing to switch practices to get it. Now, more than ever, and regardless of age, patients are open to choosing a provider who uses 21st-century communication in favor of those who continue to rely on Alexander Graham Bell’s 1876 invention.

The popularity of text messaging also continues its upward trajectory, according to survey data. Text communication rose 14 percent during COVID while a similar mid-pandemic poll found desire for phone call interaction fell 14 percent. Eighty-seven percent of patients in the new survey also cited convenience as the number one reason they prefer texting.

It no longer suffices for practice staff to make a call or leave a voicemail when most unrecognized calls go unanswered, and most voicemails go unheard. The new lingua franca of patient engagement is the text message. The sooner providers acclimate to this new reality, the more likely they’ll be able to maintain a competitive advantage in the market in retaining existing patients and recruiting new ones.

In the aftermath of the pandemic, attitudes about healthcare have evolved, and along with them, patients are more prone to reassess their providers. As the survey shows, they’re electing to go with providers who expand their communications to include convenient, easy-to-use, and more accessible text messaging. Similarly, healthcare organizations who frame an appointment as much more than just a visit and strive to connect with patients across their healthcare journey, can improve outcomes and optimize hospital-patient engagement. And by adopting a single, more refined appointment workflow, providers can support both virtual care and in-person appointments to minimize disruptions and present a better patient experience.

Taking a page out of the consumer world, the new mantra for healthcare providers should be “the patient is always right”—particularly when it comes to a text-first approach to more regular and responsive communication. Hospitals and health systems that are forward-thinking, flexible, and adapt to patients’ changing communication needs and preferences will be poised for organizational success now and into the future.

About The Author

Josh Weiner is the CEO of SR Health by Solutionreach. He joined Solutionreach from Summit Partners, a leading global growth equity firm. Through his work with Summit Partners, Josh served on the Solutionreach board of directors for three years. Before Summit Partners, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. Josh is a graduate of Stanford University and resides in Salt Lake City with his wife and two children. Josh and his family spend as much time as possible exploring the natural wonders of Utah's mountains and deserts. Connect with him on LinkedIn @joshfweiner.