During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, ED utilization declined by 42 percent across the US with the steepest decreases occurring in areas with higher infection rates, according to data collected from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program (NSSP). The significant drop-off took place while most states were under stay-at-home orders and is particularly alarming for two reasons. First, it represents millions of dollars of lost revenue by US hospitals. Second, it suggests that patients are deferring life-saving care due to fears of contracting the coronavirus.
While telehealth emerged as an important patient engagement tool during the pandemic, it's not always an appropriate or accessible venue of care especially for patients experiencing urgent and emergent issues such as heart attacks and strokes. By delaying care, patients are at a greater risk for worsening outcomes – especially those who use the ED as a safety net because they lack access to primary care and telehealth. So how can health systems alleviate patient fears and help encourage patients to return to the emergency room? Create a virtual waiting room for your Emergency Department.
Using online scheduling, providers can create a virtual waiting room that allows patients to check in online for Emergency and Urgent Care visits then wait safely at home or nearby to receive arrival instructions and wait time information. During the pandemic, virtual waiting rooms and contactless care are challenging and changing workflows. Too many walk-in patients or outpatient procedures (lab, x-ray, ED, urgent care) can overcrowd and overwhelm your facility. Plus, if you have people sitting on top of each other in your physical waiting room, you can create an exposure or transmission episode. With a virtual waiting room strategy, health systems can help patients make reservations, space out their arrival times, and safeguard social distancing measures – all while alleviating patient fears. As you redesign your patient engagement strategy to boost confidence and drive ED utilization, here are three benefits of creating a virtual waiting room:
- Reduce Waiting Room Times
Reducing the number of patients in the ER waiting room should be a priority to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. But reducing the amount of time a patient needs to be in the waiting room before Triage has the additional benefit of increasing patient satisfaction. Using an online scheduling system in the ER for a projected treatment time can help with both. Scheduling solutions should provide fifteen-minute appointment blocks, which are available 24/7 from a health system's website. The patient should be able to easily book an appointment and be instructed to arrive at a specific time, allowing ER staff to prepare for the patient's arrival while minimizing the patient's onsite wait time.
- Limit Patient Exposure
Once a patient has selected a treatment time, they can wait safely at home or nearby to receive arrival instructions and wait time information. Combining your scheduling solution with a patient communication and reminders platform allows health systems to keep patients informed and socially distant by providing updates via SMS messaging and notifying patients when it's time to enter the emergency department. Virtual waiting rooms can help manage waiting room flow and alleviate crowding in lobbies and waiting areas while also helping staff schedule extra time to frequently clean and sanitize waiting room surfaces.
- Ease Patient Fears
According to a survey by the American College of Emergency Physicians, 70% of consumers are somewhat or very concerned about contracting the coronavirus if they go to healthcare facilities to receive care for issues not related to COVID-19.In an ER environment, minutes are precious. This is a big concern for physicians throughout the industry who have seen a decline in ER visits for all non-COVID concerns. Patients afraid to seek care have sometimes delayed treatment by days or weeks until it became so debilitating, they had no other choice. Providing regular patient communication on the importance of seeking care when faced with an urgent health crisis is an important way to ease patient fears. Communications should include information on your health system's safety measures, instructions on how to schedule an appointment and utilize a virtual waiting room, and when to seek care. Health systems should also offer COVID-19 hotlines, which are answered 24/7 to provide patients with the most up-to-date information. In the case of an emergency or global health crisis, we always recommend more communication with patients and caregivers, not less.
Virtual waiting rooms are an effective strategy when used with other patient engagement solutions to promote patient access to care, drive better outcomes, and help maintain financial stability for your health system. But don't take our word for it. See how one of our clients is letting patients know it's safe to return to the ER. Using Stericycle's Intelligent Scheduling solution built on our InQuicker technology platform, our client is delivering a virtual waiting room that helps get patients "InQuicker and Home Faster!" Watch the video below.