When we think of the COVID-19 global pandemic, we think of the striking number of cases — the 6.3 million cases so far in the United States, or the 27.6 million reported cases worldwide. With tens of thousands of people battling this disease in any given week, we visualize healthcare facilities gorged with patients and emergency rooms struggling to handle the influx of people seeking care.
But while many people — both immunocompromised and in perfect health — have gotten sick or succumbed to this terrible disease, the above picture isn’t entirely accurate.
Contrary to what many people imagine, emergency room visits have actually fallen by 42 percent since the pandemic first started and medical practices experienced a 60 percent decline in patient volume, according to the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA).
There are a few reasons for this, but the most conspicuous is that patients just haven’t felt safe going into healthcare facilities for fear of being exposed to COVID-19. People that would’ve normally called for emergency services second-guessed their conditions and opted to wait out their symptoms at home. One in four people chose to delay or cancel their preventative care appointments, follow-ups, screenings, and other non-urgent procedures. This also includes elective procedures, which account for a huge chunk of a hospital’s revenue — around $700 per submission, to be exact.
These financial losses are hitting facilities hard. Hospital operating margins fell by 150 percent since March, and 97 percent of physician practices saw a 55 percent decline in revenue. This leaves healthcare leaders wondering if patient volumes will ever return back to pre-pandemic levels.
The short answer is yes, but it’s going to take more than just reopening the economy.
The pandemic has altered patient perceptions and behaviors. Facilities must be willing to adapt to new conditions and be proactive in their outreach to begin rebuilding patient volume, or else risk losing business. Here are some tips for implementing a stronger patient-first model during the pandemic that will set you up for success in a post-COVID world.
Thoughtful, transparent communication
We don’t often think about healthcare as part of the service industry, but it is. And it’s perhaps one of the most important sectors of the service industry too, as it deals with people’s livelihoods. As with any service-oriented organization, customers — and in this case patients — want to feel taken care of.
Patients who delayed or canceled their appointments at the start of the pandemic are only willing to return to their local provider if they believe it’s safe to come in again. Proactively call your patients and be transparent about the safety and cleaning procedures you’re following. If you haven’t had any COVID-19 patients in your facility, let your patients know.
By this point in the pandemic, your talk track should be focused on what you’ve been doing, not what you’re planning to do. Patients not only want to know that you’re there for them, but that you’ve been thinking about them this whole time.
Provide better front-office training
Your front-office staff are the first people patients see when they enter your facility. These individuals have already received training upon hiring, but the pandemic has demanded a more nuanced approach to service, which requires organizations to look into their training programs and make adjustments, especially as it concerns external communication.
Your patients have probably known someone with COVID, or have gotten sick themselves. A majority of these patients have also likely lost their jobs and are anxious about their financial situations and how they’ll even be able to afford their medical expenses. Your front-office staff must be more empathetic than ever before. If they aren’t meticulous about their interactions with patients, it could spell disaster for your facility.
Accommodate patients as much as possible
COVID-19 has completely altered the patient experience. Patients no longer want to wait weeks or months for a routine appointment, and they won’t think twice about switching providers if another one can see them faster. The same goes for the overall cleanliness of a facility. Patients are more likely to choose a facility that demonstrates better cleaning procedures than one that doesn’t.
Facilities must also consider offering virtual care options to their patients when possible. Prior to the pandemic, telehealth visits were used sparingly under very specific circumstances. But now, these virtual care options offer facilities the ability to connect with patients and continue to provide life-changing care to everyone they serve. Experts expect telehealth visits to top 200 million this year, where they originally only predicted 36 million.
Even the equipment you use to provide care shouldn’t be the same as it was years ago. Just look at ventilators, for example. These machines have been pivotal to saving lives in the fight against COVID-19. Since our nursing facilities see a significant number of patients with respiratory ailments, we introduced one of the most advanced ventilator machines on the market at our various locations.
This decision wasn’t only propelled by our dedication to provide a higher level of care to our patients. In the healthcare industry, these innovations could be the difference between life and death under unprecedented conditions.
A focus on behavioral health support
Depression and anxiety have skyrocketed in the pandemic among healthcare workers and U.S. adults. People are more worried about the state of their health than ever before. Healthcare organizations talk about constantly improving patient care, but if you’re only treating their physical ailments, you’re only doing half the work. To be a comprehensive support system for your patients, you must also be focused on their mental well-being.
If you’re able, consider embedding a behavioral health specialist into your practice. If this isn’t a possibility in the short-term, start building out your relationships with other networks so you can refer patients to these specialists as situations arise.
You can’t sit idly by and wait for things to return back to normal. If you aren’t proactive about adapting to the changing needs and expectations of your patients, you demonstrate that your patients were never top-of-mind to begin with. Your survival is contingent upon your ability to rebuild patient volume, and that’s only possible when you put patients at the very center of each and every decision you make.