Communication Is Key To Patient Experience During and After COVID

By Mike Pietig, vice president of healthcare experience, Avtex.

Mike Pietig

Communication is core to delivering exceptional patient experiences every day. In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and as patients and their providers slowly move forward, communication is as critical as ever.

Now is the time for providers to review how they’ve traditionally communicated with patients and what adjustments can be made to improve communications in the future. The deferring and cancelation of elective services has resulted in millions of lost revenue, putting even tighter constraints on marketing budgets, so a communications review is imperative.

An alarming 81% of consumers are unsatisfied with their healthcare experience, according to recent research by Prophet. When providers enhance communication as part of the patient experience (PX), the outcomes include improved patent retention, new patient acquisition, increased utilization of health system services, and more.

Well-planned and personalized communication ranks highest in importance in the patient experience, by the patients themselves. More effective communication increases patient engagement opportunities, reduces the volume of incoming calls that the organization is receiving (which helps staff focus on the highest priority items and the most critical patients), and lowers the cost to serve patients and maximize resource utilization, which is especially important now, given COVID has put intense strain on providers’ resources and finances.

To survive and thrive in the new norm, it’s time for providers to modernize their communications approach.

Learn the patients’ communication channel of choice.

Historically in healthcare, outreach has been focused on billboards, direct mail and tv/radio ads as the main communication channels in between face-to-face visits. These marketing blasts are nearly impossible to track for return on investment and do nothing for patient retention. Patients live in a digital world and expect digital outreach.

Communications should be delivered across multiple channels, especially when more interactions are happening outside the four walls of the provider’s physical location. Today, as demonstrated with a significant spike in care being delivered virtually, new channels are increasingly available. It’s important to meet the patient where they are today.

Providers must understand patients’ channels of choice and recognize that those preferences vary by individual, and make plans to integrate new communication formats into their overall communications approach.

Communicate change.

Many organizations have changed their practices to adapt to COVID, from curbside visits to eliminating the waiting room. It’s important to proactively communicate to patients what they can expect and what they should do, long before their visit. They need to understand that the provider has made adjustments to reflect the continually changing current state and keep patients safe.

Patients are questioning and curious about every step of the process because it is different than it was before. What are my care options? Am I at risk for catching COVID in the hospital or clinic? Do I need to get tested before I come in for my appointment? Do I need to wear a mask? Can I bring a family member? Be as proactive as possible to get information to patients to make their experience as smooth as possible

Put patients at ease.

In PX, there are two need ‘categories’ of the patient: functional and emotional. Each need should be met equally over the course of the experience, especially during COVID, when both needs have been heightened. Functional needs are knowing what to expect, what to do, what comes next, etc. Emotional needs are for individuals to feel safe and secure, taken care of, and valued. Understanding and serving their emotional needs now will build patient loyalty long term. In a crisis, there is uncertainty and fear. Patients view their provider to be a source of truth and a trusted adviser during challenging times. It’s important to communicate from this position of responsibility.

Communicate proactively.

According to a recent study, nearly 75% of patients agreed with the statement, “I wish my healthcare provider would communicate with me more often between appointments.” It’s important for providers to continue to emphasize that patients should seek the care they need during this time. Providers should inform that you’re open and successfully serving patients. Give patients the information they need so they understand how to move forward and what to expect. Learn from other industries.

Every day, patients receive emails from other industries including retail, airline and hospitality, informing them of the steps those businesses are taking to welcome customers back and keep them safe. Providers should communicate stories about how their practice is continuing during COVID, such as the number of babies they’ve delivered, or the number of telehealth visits that are happening each day.

Tell patients about cleaning and sterilizing practices, that elective services are no longer optional. Encourage patients to seek care if they are sick; delaying care will only make their situation worse. Providers shouldn’t wait for patients to come to them. Reach out and connect with patients now, as they wait on the sidelines, wondering how, if and when they should resume interactions with their providers.

Keep communicating.

It’s inevitable that there will be more changes ahead, as providers make temporary and permanent changes to how they do business, because of the COVID crisis. Patients will also drive many of the changes.

Continued communication with patients when they are not in the clinic or hospital will create additional engagement opportunities to maintain a strong connection. Share useful information directly from physicians and medical staff about anxiety management and behavioral health resources, or about healthy foods and staying active. There may be another quarantine in the fall, so it’s important to stay connected to patients. A strong communications plan can do that.

Integrate broad communications with personalized communications.

Make sure to effectively integrate the information coming from the broader organization with that coming from individual providers/locations to ensure a seamless, clear communication stream that supports the structure outlined above. Redundant, conflicting or even too much communication from a provider can compromise the PX.

Communication is such an important part of the patient experience that is requires a thoughtful, well-planned, step-by-step approach. Personas, journey mapping and putting the underlying technology in place that can deploy personalized, well-timed and continuous communication is a best practice approach to creating an excellent PX. Now is the time to also incorporate voice of the customer feedback or update a previous patient journey map.

When face-to-face interactions are limited because of COVID and patient anxiety is at an all-time high, it’s more important than ever to plan effective communications that serves everyone’s needs now and in the future.  When executed correctly, these suggestions can accelerate patients returning to the health system, increase patient retention and maximize provider revenue.

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