Population health has become increasingly important amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Health systems must now balance keeping people in their communities healthy and caring for patients infected with the virus, all amid worsening care disparities and social determinants of health. With a dramatic decrease in elective procedures and in-person visits, now’s the time for health systems to take a closer look at their population health initiatives to improve health outcomes, reduce risk, and promote long-term financial sustainability. Here are five things your health system should be doing for population health.
Get Patient Back into Care
A CDC report in September 2020 revealed: “Because of concerns about COVID-19, an estimated 41% of U.S. adults delayed or avoided medical care including urgent or emergency care (12%) and routine care (32%). Avoidance of emergency care was more prevalent among unpaid caregivers for adults, persons with underlying medical conditions, African American adults, Hispanic adults, young adults, and persons with disabilities.”
Health systems should risk-stratify patient populations to identify the highest risk patients who have missed care in the past six to twelve months and conduct proactive outreach to get them to resume routine care. One way that this can be done is by sending text reminders to those patients that have delayed care. It could be as simple as, “We’ve noticed you’ve missed your appointment in 2020 and have yet to reschedule. Click this link to schedule your appointment now.” This gives patients that ability to conveniently schedule their appointment online right after reading the message, so they are less likely to forget later. Health systems should also continue to offer virtual visits for care when it makes sense to increase access to care and meet the preference of some patients.
Consider Mental Health as a Component of Overall Health and Incorporate it Into Primary Care
COVID-19 has brought increased mental health challenges due to elevated stress, financial insecurity, and extended exposure to traumatic events. Health systems need to identify patients at high risk of mental health conditions and increase access to behavioral health support—whether virtually or through primary care. This can be done by offering virtual care solutions such as psychiatric care via telehealth, mindfulness tools, and digital platforms that can help address anxiety, depression, and peer support. But it also will need to encompass primary care–based resources to intervene on acute anxiety and stress—and also accommodate for future demand. Learn tips to drive adherence in mental health patients here.
According to a study by The Journal of Managed Care, "Behavioral health programs developed during COVID-19 will be increasingly needed to 'flatten the behavioral health curve' of subsequent trauma, grief, and unhealthy coping, and they will be vital in the future to offer more flexible and rapid access to mental health resources." 1
Increase Access to Care In Socioeconomic Disadvantaged Communities
Telehealth has been lauded as a great way to ensure access while social distancing. But unfortunately, the digital wave during COVID-19 has increased the access gap in certain socioeconomic groups. For example, people living in rural communities already face health disparities and are using telehealth less than their counterparts. Rural telehealth usage peaked in early April with 29% and when measured again in August, only 9% have used telehealth, compared to usage of 15% for those living in urban areas.
Health systems should conduct patient focus groups to find ways to continue to meet the needs of all patients in the community (i.e. phone visits without telehealth) and deploying platforms that incorporate multi-language searching and scheduling capabilities.
Be A Beacon of Health Information for Your Community
Being a beacon of information isn't about being lofty. It's about communicating early and often—in a wide variety of all channels—with patients of all types. As health protocols evolve—especially COVID-19 protocols, be proactive in letting patients know what's going on and what they can expect. As the vaccine has rolled out, consider how you can answer patient questions, schedule appointments, and prepare them for their vaccinations. See how we can help support your COVID-19 vaccine management program.
Don't forget to monitor social media and dispel disinformation. Now is the time to "up" your health system's social media game and closely respond to activity across your social media platforms. Although you can't control what is being said in all social media circles, you can have a plan to monitor comments to your own social media posts as well as mentions in others' posts—which will help maintain your authority and reputation.
Boost Physical Activity and Health Literacy
Many patients lost access to health and wellness programs in 2020. Gym access was cut off. Education programs that weren't ready for virtual teaching were shut down. And with social distancing, basic movement decreased. Researchers at UC San Francisco conducted a worldwide study of daily step count measurements that showed some regions experienced a 50 percent decrease in steps as social distancing measures were placed into effect.
Physical activity is an important determinant of health. And since patients' health outcome is directly related to health literacy, now is the time to offer classes—fitness, nutrition, and lifestyle for your community—to increase their odds of effectively managing their chronic health conditions. Learn more about our Class & Event Registration solution.
While COVID-19 and the vaccine continue to be the focus for many health systems, it's important for population health to still remain a priority. Implementation practices and technology that address health behaviors will offer the best opportunity to improve patient outcomes and promote long-term financial sustainability. To learn more about how our Health & Wellness Campaigns can help acquire, engage, and educate your patient population, click here.