While the long-term impact of COVID-19 is still unfolding, health systems are looking to understand how the pandemic should reshape patient engagement approaches going forward. Healthcare leaders are asking: What went right as health systems pivoted to accommodate patient needs during the pandemic? What did not go well in 2020 from a patient experience and satisfaction perspective? How can we learn from mistakes made and apply these learnings to new mid- and longer-term strategies for improving patient relationships, loyalty, and experience?
The inaugural Stericycle Communication Solutions U.S. Consumer Trends in Patient Engagement Survey set out to help answer these and other questions. Through a third party, we surveyed more than 500 healthcare consumers across the U.S. to understand their healthcare experiences in 2020 and the impact of COVID-19 on those experiences. Below we've highlighted some key survey findings that impact your patient engagement approach, as well as provided six patient engagement strategies that your health system can put into action now based on the findings.
Key Survey Findings
Healthcare Consumers Experienced Lack of Attention and Engagement for Non-COVID Issues
The pandemic exposed weaknesses in healthcare systems—especially in communication. Our survey found that 27% of healthcare consumers felt that it "took a while" for healthcare providers to contact them to reschedule their appointments that were cancelled due to lockdowns and fear of the virus. In addition, another 8% are still waiting to hear from their provider, a full seven to eight months after existing appointments were cancelled.
"Providers should double down on communications during a crisis, such as a pandemic, instead of pulling back and not communicating," said Matt Dickson, VP of Product, Strategy, and GM of ComSol. The survey also revealed that, "only 5% of patients received multi-channel communications regarding COVID-19 policies. There is an opportunity here to broaden your communication channels."
When looking at prompts to reschedule cancelled or missed appointments, channel preferences emerged as younger age groups indicated a preference for text or email reminders, while older consumers preferred a phone call or letter in the mail. At least a third of respondents reported they still prefer phone calls to communicate with their healthcare providers. "A multi-channel patient engagement solution, which includes live voice as an option is still preferred by many consumers," Matt Dickson added.
There is a Distinct Preference for Virtual Waiting Rooms and Virtual Visits During the Pandemic
While access to in-person healthcare services remains limited due to the ongoing pandemic, there is a clear preference for virtual waiting rooms and consultations to access healthcare services and resources.
The number of virtual visits grew during the COVID-19 outbreak, with 36% saying they've accessed care via telemedicine or virtual channels 3 to 4 times since COVID-19 began. However, healthcare consumers do plan to return to in-person appointments after the pandemic is over, particularly for certain types of providers and services.
Patient Experience Suffered During the Pandemic
Patient satisfaction with provider communications dropped by 13% since COVID-19. Respondents also cited a general lack of provider responsiveness to digital communications from patients. Also of note, more than half of the respondents (54%) felt rushed during the appointment, an increase of 35% compared to pre-COVID experiences.
Appointment confirmations and reminders via text and email were "extremely helpful." The survey revealed that 42% of consumers prefer one reminder from their healthcare provider prior to their appointment, and 30% prefer two reminders. "This is why confirmation suppression is so important to your reminders solution," said Matt Dickson.
Healthcare Consumers Expect to See Providers Within One Week
Most respondents are willing to wait up to seven days for non-emergency appointments before they look elsewhere for care. Anything longer than seven days and health systems risk losing patients to more responsive and available providers.
"You have to give people, in an easily digestible fashion, as many options as possible when booking appointments. Immediacy is becoming a big factor in whether a patient will book an appointment or look for another option," said Matt Dickson.
More Healthcare Consumers Are Seeking Out Mental Health Services
The number of healthcare consumers seeking mental health treatment jumped by 10% during the pandemic, with 26% saying that recent events caused them to seek care. More than one-third of consumers who sought mental health treatment also missed their appointments due to their mental state.
Prior to the pandemic, older age groups (55 and older) made up the largest percentage (40%) of those seeking mental health treatment. During the pandemic, younger consumers (aged 35 to 54) made up the largest portion (47%) of those who answered that they sought treatment for issues related to the pandemic as well as events associated with social inequality and the election.
Six Patient Engagement Strategies to Put into Action
Reassure patients and combat fears of contracting COVID-19 by offering contactless experiences, including online self-scheduling, virtual waiting rooms, online check-in, and contactless payment.
Create a frictionless telehealth experience with online and live voice scheduling solutions, patient reminders, and technical support for patients who are new to teleconferencing.
Improve communication and patient satisfaction with multi-channel strategies that combine automated text, email, professional recorded voice, and live agent messages, as well as dedicated hotlines for patient, caregiver, and staff questions.
Drive immediacy for appointments and prevent patients switching to another provider by providing easy, convenient live voice scheduling and online self-scheduling across all care venues, including emergency, urgent care, physicians, specialists, and telehealth.
Help mental health patients adhere to appointments and treatment plans by personalizing patient engagement with customized communications that reduce no-show and cancellation rates.
Execute a successful COVID-19 vaccine program with a HIPAA-compliant solution that supports scheduling, reminders, hotlines, and follow-up.
Looking forward, health systems need to regain patients' trust, re-establish and prioritize patient communication, and help patients adapt to and succeed with both digital and in-person experiences. Pivoting your system's patient engagement strategies and improving patient experience will help to reduce churn, improve adherence, recoup lost revenue, reduce penalties, and more. To learn more about these survey results and additional findings, download our whitepaper: What the Pandemic Taught Us About Patient Engagement.