COVID-19 terms such as quarantine, flatten the curve, social distance, and personal protective equipment (PPE) have dominated headlines in recent months, but what hasn’t been discussed in length are the hidden costs of COVID-19 as it relates to patient adherence.
The coronavirus pandemic has amplified this long-standing issue in healthcare as patients are delaying routine preventative and ongoing care for ailments such as mental health and chronic disease. Emergency care is also suffering at alarming rates. Studies show a 42 percent decline in emergency department visits, measuring the volume of 2.1 million visits per week between March and April 2019 to 1.2 million visits per week between March and April 2020. Patients are not seeking the treatment they need – and at what cost?
When the SARS outbreak occurred in 2002, particularly in Taiwan, there was a marked reduction in inpatient care and utilization as well as ambulatory care. Chronic-care hospitalizations for long-term conditions like diabetes plummeted during the SARS crisis but skyrocketed afterward. Similar to the 2002 epidemic, people are currently not venturing en masse to emergency rooms or hospitals, but if history repeats itself, hospital and ER visits will happen at an influx and create a new strain on the healthcare system.
So, if patients aren’t going to the ER or visiting their doctors regularly, where have they gone? They are staying at home. According to reports from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 28 percent of Americans polled said they or a family member delayed medical care due to the pandemic, and 11 percent indicated that their condition worsened as a result of the delayed care. Of note, 70 percent of consumers are concerned or very concerned about contracting COVID-19 when visiting healthcare facilities to receive care unrelated to the virus. There is a growing concern that patients will either see a relapse in their illness or will experience new complications when the pandemic subsides.
Rather than brace for a tidal wave of patients, healthcare systems should proactively take steps (or act now) to drive patient access, action, and adherence.
1. Identify Who Needs to Care The Most
Healthcare providers should consider risk stratifying patients. High-risk people, such as an 80-year-old male with comorbidities and recent cardiac bypass surgery, may require a hands-on and frequent outreach effort. A 20-year-old female, however, who comes in annually for her physical but is healthy, may not require that level of engagement. Understanding which patients are at risk for the potential for chronic conditions to become acute or patients who have a hard time staying on their care plan may need prioritized attention and a more thorough engagement effort.
For example, patients with a history of mental health issues may lack motivation or momentum to seek care. Their disposition to be disengaged may require greater input to push past their disengagement.
Especially important is the ability to educate and guide patients to the appropriate venue of care (ER, telehealth visit, in-person primary care visit, or urgent care) based on their self-reported symptoms. Allowing patients to self-triage while scheduling appointments helps them make more informed decisions about their care while reducing the burden on over-utilized emergency departments.
2. Capture The Attention of The Intended Audience and Induce Action
Once you’ve identified who needs care the most, how do you break through the “information clutter” to ensure healthcare messages resonate with the intended audience? The more data points, the better. It is important to understand the age of the patient, their preferred communication channel, and the intended message for the recipient, but effective communication exceeds those three data points. Consider factors like the presence of mental health conditions, comorbidities, or health literacies. Then, think beyond the patient’s channel of choice and select the appropriate channel of communication (text, phone call, email, paid social media advertisement, etc.), that will most likely induce action. As an organization, also consider running A/B tests to detect and analyze behavior. As you collect more data, determine what exactly is inducing patient action.
Of note, don’t underestimate the power of repetition. Patients may need to be reminded of the intended action a few times in a few different ways before moving forward with seeking the care they need. Repetition is also shown to decrease no-show rates, a critical metric. Proactive, prescriptive, and tailored communication will help increase engagement. Moving past the channel of choice and toward the channel of action is key.
3. Engage Patients Through Personalized and Tailored Communication
In addition to identifying the right communication channel, it’s also important to ensure you deliver an effective message. Communication with patients should be relevant to their particular medical needs while paying close attention to where each person is in their healthcare journey. Connecting with patients on both an emotional and rational level is also important. For example, sending a positive communication via phone, email, or text to lay the foundation for the interaction shows interest in the patient’s wellbeing.
A “Hey, here’s why you need to come in” note makes a connection in a direct and personalized way. At the same time, and in a very pointed manner, sharing ways providers and health systems are keeping patients safe (e.g., telehealth, virtual waiting rooms, separate entrances, and mandating masks), also provides comfort to skittish patients. Additionally, consider all demographic information when tailoring communications. And don’t forget to analyze if changes in content impact no-show rates. Low overall literacy may impact health literacy and may require simpler and more positive words to positively impact adherence.
It may sound daunting, especially for individual health systems, to personalize patient communication efforts, but the use of today’s data tools and technological advancements can relieve the burden and streamline efforts for an effective communication approach.
4. Use Technology to Your Advantage (With Caution)
Once you have developed your communication strategy, don’t stop there. Consider all aspects of the patient journey to drive action. A virtual waiting room strategy, for example, can help ease patient concerns and encourage them to resume their care. Health systems can help patients make reservations, space out their arrival times, and safeguard social distancing measures—all while alleviating patient fears. Ideally, the patient would be able to seamlessly book an appointment and receive a specific arrival time, allowing ER staff to prepare for the patient’s arrival while minimizing onsite wait time.
When implemented properly, telehealth visits can also improve continuity of care, enhance provider efficiency, attract and retain patients who are seeking convenience, as well as appeal to those who would prefer not to travel to their healthcare facility for their visit. Providers need to determine which appointments can successfully be resolved virtually. Additionally, some patients might not have the means for a successful telehealth visit due to a lack of internet access, a language barrier, or a safe space to talk freely.
To ensure all patients receive quality care, health systems should make plans to serve patients who lack the technology or bandwidth to participate in video visits in an alternative manner. For example, monitor patients remotely by asking them to self-report basic information such as blood sugar levels, weight, and medication compliance via short message service (SMS). This gives providers the ability to continuously monitor their patients while enhancing patient safety, increasing positive outcomes, and enabling real-time escalation whenever clinical intervention is needed.
It is important we ensure all patients stay on track with their health, despite uncertain and fearful times. Health systems can enhance patient adherence and induce action through the implementation of tools that increase patient engagement and alleviate the impending strain on the healthcare system.
About Matt Dickson
Matt Dickson is Vice President of Product, Strategy, and General Manager of Stericycle Communication Solutions, a patient engagement platform that seamlessly combines both voice and digital channels to provide the modern experience healthcare consumers want while solving complex challenges to patient access, action, and adherence. . He is a versatile leader with strong operational management experience and expertise providing IT, product, and process solutions in the healthcare industry for nearly 25 years. Find him on LinkedIn.