Guest Column | August 13, 2020

New Research Sheds Light On COVID's Impact On Patient Communication

By Josh Weiner, Solutionreach

telehealth patient

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, healthcare organizations have been losing money for a variety of reasons. In fact, MJH Life Sciences found the average loss of revenue as a result of the pandemic is 36 percent. Most of this is related to a drop in volume, but that decrease isn’t entirely due to closures. Some patients aren’t going to the doctor, emergency department, or urgent care even when the facility is open. The latest data says hospital emergency room visits are down 40 percent, new cancer diagnoses dropped 45 percent, and visits related to heart attacks fell 38 percent while stroke cases were down 30 percent.

This problem has more to do with fear and misunderstanding than a lack of access. The best way to combat this problem is with better engagement and communication. New research conducted by SR Health by Solutionreach suggests that patients’ overall satisfaction has dropped since the pandemic began and their communication preferences have changed.

We collected some of the last known data about pre-COVID-19 patient communication preferences when it commissioned a study in early 2020 to better understand patients’ communication likes and dislikes at four key parts of the patient journey: scheduling, patient care, financial, and patient outreach. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we conducted another survey to capture its impact on the same four parts of the patient journey, as well as on telehealth communication. The new analysis compares the two surveys to show unique insights into how the pandemic has affected patient communication preferences.

Patient Satisfaction Is Dropping- Here’s Why

Healthcare organizations have an opportunity to make small changes that could have a big impact on getting patients in for the care they need. The new data shows an overall drop in patient satisfaction of seven percent. It may not seem like a lot, but at a time when every visit counts for both organizational revenue and patient outcomes, it’s too much.

When asked about what specifically about their care led to a satisfying experience, patients were eight percent less likely identify timely messages, seven percent less likely to say they felt their questions were answered, and nine percent less likely to say they felt heard since the pandemic began as compared to before.

While satisfaction was higher before COVID-19, patients were still highly likely to have complaints about service and communication. 53 percent of patients said poor communication was their top complaint in an Advisory Board study conducted before the pandemic. The challenges posed since March 2020 have highlighted the pre-existing problems and made them more visible as getting accurate, timely information or answers to questions can feel like life or death to patients today.

Modern, Digital Communication Options Provide Hope

The good news is that the pandemic has also bridged the digital divide, pushing new tools into the limelight and helping everyone to be more receptive to them—from payers to providers to patients. In particular, there is a growing acceptance and interest in more automated communication and the use of telehealth.

The SR Health study showed a 14 percent drop in interest in phone calls by patients. The desire for phone calls has been on a downswing for some time as more and more patients turn to text, but it has been accelerated by the pandemic. At the same time, the appeal of automated communication, text messaging, and telehealth are all on the rise. According to the full report:

  • The percentage of patients finding automated communications desirable rose from 81 percent to 84 percent.
  • Sixty-three percent of patients said they feel comfortable participating in telehealth visits.
  • Overall, patients believe text and email are highly effective during different stages of the patient journey. That belief has increased across the board for communications related to scheduling, follow-up care, financial transactions, and educational outreach.

The overwhelming support for automated communications appears to be tied directly to convenience and access. When asked why they are open to AI in their patient communications, one patient said, “Automated systems are the way to go. It helps me ask questions at any time of day, regardless of office hours.” Several patients commented on the time it takes to get an answer through in-person visits or phone calls. Another person said, “Being able to get quick responses from my doctor to questions means less time in the office for something that a quick message would have answered… and [it] gives the doctor time to see the patients that need to be seen.”

Looking at the data, it’s clear that COVID-19 has had an impact on patent communication and satisfaction. That impact may be compounding the challenges healthcare organizations are experiencing as they try to get patients in the door for needed care. Making subtle changes to patient interactions through the use of increased automated communications, two-way text messaging, and telehealth may help facilities increase visits and improve outcomes as they work to recover from the impact COVID has had on revenue and patient health.

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. Prior to 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.