One of the many things that COVID-19 taught us is that patient engagement matters. Always. The patient journey is complicated, and it's important to simplify expectations for patients—especially in the middle of emergency conditions. As healthcare evolves and adapts to new norms, health systems will need to apply lessons learned and invest in solutions that improve access, convenience, safety, and satisfaction, while simultaneously driving positive health outcomes.
It's important to revisit your plans for navigating emergencies and crises, as it can be challenging to know where to begin once they hit. Here are five steps you can revisit now to ensure you'll be ready to engage with patients during future public health events—whether it's the next COVID-19 wave or another yet-to-be-determined test.
Step 1: Prepare Your Office to Ensure Patient and Provider Safety
Ensure your health system or practice meets national, state, and local criteria during emergencies and public health crises—especially those that may cause office closures or re-openings. If closings happen, consider whether you reopen fully, in a limited capacity, or have a phased opening. You will also need to determine which services you can perform safely in person and those services you will handle via telehealth or other modalities. Additional considerations include:
SANITIZATION AND STERILIZATION PROCESSES
Implement and follow sanitation and sterilization guidelines from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization as well as other national associations. This includes regular cleaning or sterilization of equipment, treatment rooms, plus all surfaces staff and patients frequently touch with EPA-registered disinfectants.
PHYSICAL SEPARATION FOR SOCIAL DISTANCING
Determine how you will physically separate staff and patients and maintain recommended social distancing practices. This may include adding barriers such as plexiglass between staff and patients where possible and establishing a virtual waiting room that allows patients to wait safely for their appointment at home or in their car.
CHECK-IN AND PAYMENT PROCESSES
Consider creating a virtual patient check-in experience to securely capture patient data, including insurance information, patient history, and any pre-screening questions specific to the crisis. Determine how you will accept patient payments, including payment plans, and consider utilizing contactless payment options so patients and staff can avoid touching money, cards, or devices in your practice.
Step 2: Prepare Your Staff for Scheduling Adjustments
Consider your staffing needs and be prepared to make staffing adjustments, including modifying schedules. If your practice ever closes, you will need to plan for a gradual reopening as patient volumes may come back slowly, in cycles, or in uneven spurts. If you furlough staff, you will also need to assess when and how they return based on ramp-up projections. Additional considerations include:
Consider developing a policy to screen employees for illness. Records of employee screening results should be kept in a confidential employment file separate from their personnel file. All policy changes should be communicated to staff and providers before they return to work.
PHYSICAL SEPARATION TO ENSURE SOCIAL DISTANCING
When relevant, consider rearranging open work areas to increase the distance between your staff. Have dedicated workstations and patient rooms to minimize the number of people touching the same equipment throughout the day.
Ensure staff are up to date on their continuing education credits and provide them with guidelines from the CDC to protect themselves and prevent the spread of pathogens and infection. Be sure to continuously update your employees on your masks and other PPE guidelines, social distancing protocols, hygiene policies, and even vaccine mandates.
Step 3: Prepare Your Plan for Patient Scheduling Changes
When practice schedules are interrupted, it is crucial to reach out to your high-risk, chronic patients and begin to triage who you want to see first. This is important because patient adherence is typically amplified during crises. Triaging patients into risk levels will help you effectively manage your schedule. Additional considerations include:
HOURS OF OPERATION
Based on the situation, you will need to determine your hours of operation. If you are only open at 50 percent capacity, you may want to consider shortening your hours. Conversely, you may need to offer extended hours of operation, including weekends, to provide access to care for all your overdue patients. You should also consider whether you will designate specific days or hours in the day to see higher-risk patient populations.
NOTE: High-risk patients include the elderly, those with medical comorbidities, and other persons at higher risk for complications, such as pregnant women.
APPOINTMENT TYPES: VIRTUAL VISITS VERSUS IN-PERSON
Consider which services are best to transition to virtual visits. Then, create new appointment types specifically for virtual visits to differentiate from regular office visits. This is especially important as your appointments shift from all virtual visits to a mix of hybrid care. Each new appointment type should also have the appropriate visit length assigned to ensure patients don't leave their appointment feeling frustrated and rushed.
LEVERAGE A MEDICAL CALL CENTER TO IMPROVE STAFF AVAILABILITY
Consider outsourcing to a medical call center to help manage call volume. You will want to work with your medical call center partner to provide answers to frequently asked questions, including which visits are now being scheduled, what to do if a patient missed an appointment, available options for virtual visits, and how to prepare for a virtual visit.
Step 4: Communicate Changes Using a Patient Outreach Strategy
You will want to communicate with patients to set proper expectations about their upcoming visit. You may choose to send a broadcast message to all patients to let them know about any changes and how you will prioritize the rescheduling of appointments, or you may choose to customize your patient communications based on patient groups such as those with chronic illnesses, those with scheduled appointments, and those whose appointments were previously canceled. Additional considerations include:
Make it easy for patients to schedule, confirm, or reschedule appointments in the channel that drives action. You may also want to send a text message with either a link to your online scheduling solution and/or your phone number to help patients reschedule missed appointments due to any crises.
Use a patient outreach solution to confirm and remind patients of their upcoming appointments. Even more, bundling multiple upcoming reminders into a single communication prevents message overload. If you don't have a patient outreach solution in place, this is a great time to explore options.
PRE-VISIT INSTRUCTIONS WITH PATIENT APPOINTMENT REMINDERS
Utilize a patient outreach solution to provide patients with important instructions as they prepare for their visit. This can include instructions for completing pre-registration forms and submitting insurance information, as well as any changes to check-in and waiting room procedures. If you require patients to wear face masks or have other requirements, include those instructions as well.
Preparing patients for a virtual visit can help alleviate fears and ensure they adhere to their scheduled virtual appointment.
Step 5: Prepare to Grow Patient Acquisition
The battle for healthcare consumers has never been fiercer as health systems and clinicians fight to win back patients. To ensure you thrive, make sure you deliver the convenience, access, and value healthcare consumers are looking for when seeking providers. Additional considerations include:
SEARCH ENGINE RANKING
Achieving high-ranking organic search results requires consistent efforts that help your brand show up in one of the webpage's top spots. To improve your ranking, you'll need to apply best practices for search engine optimization (SEO), including the use of strategic keywords, consistently updated and high-quality content, and social media.
Tip: To make sure you're receiving as many scheduled appointments as possible, optimize what Google displays in your health system's profile on the right-hand side of the results page. Aside from making sure the information is correct, add a link for appointments to create an immediate call to action.
RATINGS AND REVIEWS
Pay attention to your online reviews. If a consumer searches using the term "best," Google often shows only results for businesses with a 4-star rating and above. This is why it's critical to manage and respond to comments and reviews on your social media and review sites. You should also set up automated patient satisfaction surveys to help you gather more online reviews so you can rank higher and healthcare consumers can easily find you.
Often the part of the patient journey from searching for a new provider to scheduling an appointment is a major source of frustration and confusion. To identify speedbumps in your processes, map your patient journey and what a consumer needs to do at each step of the way. Are you making it particularly challenging for new patients to find you? How can you streamline the process of scheduling an appointment?
Take steps now to solve your greatest challenges to patient access, action, and adherence. This includes extending your reach with online and live-voice scheduling, promoting two-way patient communication, eliminating manual check-in processes, investing in telehealth solutions and other digital tools, and promoting patient self-management.
At Stericycle, we protect what matters, and that includes your ability to provide meaningful patient engagement strategies to help you manage and quickly recover from crises. Ensure your health system is prepared for crises by utilizing our free checklist: Improve Patient Engagement During Public Health Crises. To learn more about how we can help engage your patients during and after health crises, contact us.