Guest Column | June 25, 2020

Distancing Doesn't Mean Disconnecting!

By Josh Weiner, CEO, Solutionreach

Social DIstancing

Social distancing. It went from a phrase few people had ever heard to one that’s repeated on the news, via social media, and in private conversations many times a day. And while recommendations to stay a minimum of six feet apart have changed life as we know it, social distancing does not mean that communication with patients should slow down. In fact, it’s the very opposite! Patient communication is more important than ever before.

This pandemic has stirred up both fear and confusion in patients. Unsurprisingly, a recent study found that a full one-third of Americans are now showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression as they struggle through this time. They’re afraid of catching the virus. They’re confused about what measures they should be taking to stay safe. They’re not sure that visiting the doctor is wise. In fact, as this pandemic has raged on, hospital emergency room visits fell by 40 percent, new cancer diagnoses dropped by 45 percent, visits for heart attacks saw a fall of 38 percent, and stroke cases were down by 30 percent. Meanwhile, cancellations and no-shows rose to 80 percent. But patients still need care. And health systems still need patients!

Fortunately, healthcare professionals have the unique ability to mitigate some of these fears. Americans are looking to their healthcare system for guidance. Sixty-nine percent of Americans say that they want healthcare and scientific leaders to guide their response to COVID-19. Even more importantly, 90 percent say that they trust their personal physician more than a government health specialist. This means that as you communicate in a timely and impactful way, patients will be more willing to be seen for needed care. Patient health outcomes will improve, satisfaction levels will rise, and, subsequently, healthcare revenue will stabilize.

How Should Healthcare Organizations Be Communicating During COVID-19?

There are a few ways that an organization should be regularly reaching out to patients. The first is through an educational newsletter. These are typically sent through email. While many practices are already in the habit of sending newsletters, right now these newsletters should increase in frequency. It’s important during any major event to err on the side of over-communicating rather than under-communicating. Depending on the status of your particular area, this may mean sending emails as frequently as weekly or twice a month. At a minimum, you should be sharing information monthly via a newsletter. These newsletters should include the current COVID-19 status for your area, official guidelines based on the phase you’re in, and tips for staying safe. Be sure to add any information that is specific to your specialty.

In addition to a general newsletter, healthcare organizations should create groups of patients with similar conditions or demographic traits to send them more targeted information. The type of groups you create will vary based on your specialty, but one group that all organizations should create is that of high-risk patients. Regardless of specialty, high-risk patients have special needs during this time. If a patient has been diagnosed by your organization with a condition that puts them in the high-risk category, you should alert them to this fact. There have been many anecdotal stories of patients who were uncertain if they were at high risk or not. This made it even more difficult for them to manage life during this pandemic. High-risk patients include those who:

  • Are age 65 or older.
  • Have chronic lung disease or asthma.
  • Have serious heart conditions.
  • May be immunocompromised (those with cancer treatment, immune deficiencies, poorly controlled HIV or AIDS, bone marrow or organ transplant recipients, prolonged use of corticosteroids, and other immune weakening medications).
  • Have a BMI of 40 or higher.
  • Have diabetes or liver disease.
  • Have chronic kidney disease and are undergoing dialysis.

Create specific email and text groups for these high-risk patients and be sure to regularly update them with the best information for staying safe. You should also develop ways to make these patients more secure about their safety when visiting your office. Some practices have been dedicating certain days or times to high-risk patients. During those times, appointments can be more carefully spread out from one another and extra time can be dedicated to cleaning and sanitizing. Small adjustments such as these can go a long way to ease fears and encourage patients to return to the office for care.

Finally, be sure to send regular information to all patients regarding any changes to processes and procedures within your healthcare organization. Being transparent about the things you are doing to ensure safety is critical when patients are feeling skittish about being seen. Sharing process changes ahead of time also will improve the flow and efficiency when patients arrive to be seen. Through both email and text messages, let patients know how your waiting room process has changed. Communicate how telehealth visits work. Send pre-visit instructions and COVID-19 screening questions. The key is to avoid surprises for patients when they arrive for their appointments. They should be informed and aware of what to expect. This will boost their satisfaction and confidence in your office.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, patient communication is (and will continue to be) the lifeline that keeps healthcare organizations running smoothly. By keeping patients up to date on what is happening, giving tips on how to stay safe, and sharing changes that have been implemented within your organization, you will be able to foster loyalty and trust in the care you provide.

About The Author

Josh Weiner is the CEO of 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, daughter, and golden retriever Willow (who often makes cameos at the Solutionreach office). 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.