As the next wave of the pandemic unfolds, the rise in cases is once again straining health care systems. But that’s not the only reason hospitals and health systems could experience an influx of emergency or critical care visits. Findings from the National Poll on Healthy Aging based at the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation revealed that nearly one in three Americans between the ages of 50 and 80 put off an in-person appointment for medical care in 2020 because they were worried about potential COVID-19 exposure, and with the emergence of new variants, that trend could continue.
There is a growing concern that patients will either see a relapse in their illness or will experience new complications as a result of waiting too long to visit the doctor. Put simply, there could essentially be two health crises crowding the system: those who have tested positive for the coronavirus, and those who delayed routine preventative and ongoing care for ailments such as chronic disease or mental health.
As we look to the cooler months ahead and this next cycle of the pandemic, here’s how hospitals and health systems should encourage patients to resume or maintain routine care. Returning to care could catch a potentially dangerous and life-threatening health care complication that would otherwise go undiagnosed if someone delayed or avoided the doctor’s office.
Encourage patients to schedule their annual visits
While in lockdown, communities were encouraged to stay home and only venture out for the essentials. The emphasis on limited, nonessential outings could have deterred patients from seeking routine care, and therefore canceling, but not rescheduling, their doctor’s visit. It’s important for hospitals and health systems to encourage their patients to return to care and emphasize that they can do so safely. With many patients overdue for their annual wellness visits, practices should be actively reaching out to patients in their health systems to encourage them to schedule annual exams that have been previously missed or delayed. The patient may require a few reminders to schedule their appointment as well as messaging that emphasizes the safety measures that are in place at the practice. Once the appointment is scheduled, a confirmation notice, sent to the channel that induces patient action, will help to decrease a possible no-show, and increase patient engagement.
Furthermore, with the start of a new school year, health care organizations should consider creating a targeted outreach campaign to help parents coordinate their child’s COVID-19 vaccination, if eligible. Additionally, they should connect with parents in their system who have children who need their yearly physicals. By including a scheduling link within the message, parents can easily see the provider’s availability and will conveniently and seamlessly schedule an appointment—whether the appointment is virtual or in person.
Utilize a hybrid care model
While virtual visits aren’t suited for all appointment types, they remain a convenient and efficient way for patients to engage with their providers. Hybrid care, a combination of in-person and virtual visits, can provide patients with the convenience of virtual sessions but can also offer in-person appointments when appropriate—especially if a patient only wants to enter a health care facility when absolutely necessary. Offering a hybrid care model will help to attract and retain patients to ensure they are staying up to date on their health.
Telehealth can be beneficial for mental health concerns, minor medical issues, or prescription renewal discussions, as well as for delivering post-visit and post-operative care. It can be particularly helpful to patients in situations where, for example, transportation may be an issue, and they have a health care concern they’d like to discuss. To ensure all patients receive quality care, health systems should be supportive of those who lack the technology or bandwidth to participate in video visits. This includes offering a telephone visit instead. Additionally, providers can monitor patients remotely by asking them to self-report basic information such as blood sugar levels, weight, and medication compliance via cell phone short message service (SMS). This gives providers the ability to continuously monitor their patients while enhancing patient safety, avoiding potentially life-threatening health complications as a result of delayed care, and enabling real-time escalation whenever clinical intervention is needed.
Prioritize personalized, patient-centric communication
Patients should not feel that just because they may be out of sight, they are out of mind. Frequent, tailored, patient engagement is vital and ensures they don’t seek care elsewhere, or seek no care at all. Patients want to feel that their providers are invested in their health and well-being. As a trusted resource, providers should encourage their patients to return to care immediately.
As COVID cases continue to rise, establishing dedicated COVID-19 multilingual hotlines to answer patient questions is one of the most effective ways to keep patients informed without burdening your staff with increased call volumes. Agents can answer questions related to the new variants, the vaccine and its efficacy, reports of breakthrough cases, as well as questions on vaccinating children, while also reiterating safety protocols that are implemented within the practice. Given the latest recommendation about obtaining a third booster shot eight months after receiving the second COVID-19 vaccine dose, there will likely be an influx of inquiries, questions, and updates surrounding the topic. The current climate has made transparency and accuracy in patient education and communication more important than ever.
There are multiple touchpoints along the patient journey that determine how likely a patient is to continue receiving care from your practice. For example, consider utilizing a message broadcast solution to let patients know that you offer online scheduling or virtual visits, and provide a link for them to schedule an appointment. By educating patients on convenient care options, you will likely increase patient satisfaction and induce patient action.
Staying up to date on annual exams, wellness visits, and routine care will benefit your health in the long run. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, anyone experiencing a medical emergency should seek and be provided care without delay.
Matt Dickson is a health care executive.
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