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Reengaging healthcare consumers in a post-COVID-19 world

Insight Article - May 20, 2021

Marketing/Social Media

Patient Engagement

Jim Durkin
Barb Lhota
There’s no time to waste in getting people to reengage with healthcare systems. Now is the time for healthcare providers to strengthen their approaches for bringing people back to their healthcare journeys.
 
During this unprecedented past year, fewer people visited healthcare providers. Some people even avoided hospital emergency rooms and urgent care facilities for serious problems like heart attacks and strokes. Delaying routine annual physicals and acute care emergencies could lead to life-threatening outcomes.
 
In a nationwide study conducted by The Martec Group, many consumers reported feeling insecure about reengaging with U.S. healthcare systems. Concerns identified include both in-person and remote care. Findings also draw a roadmap for healthcare providers looking to regain consumer trust and optimize capacity levels.
 
In the study, Martec defined four consumer segments. In three of the four groups, feelings such as “cautious,” “anxious,” and “nervous” appear. One segment, representing a mere 17% of the total, felt pleasant emotions such as “good,” “happy” and “hopeful.” However, no matter how a person may feel about using in-person or remote healthcare services, regular visits can help prevent serious health issues.
 
As the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths decline and the percentage of people vaccinated climbs, healthcare providers need to recapture the confidence healthcare consumers had before the pandemic. The problem is that many providers are still challenged to find the best ways to alleviate people’s fears and bring them back to full, in-person reengagement when necessary. Finding the right messaging and communication channels will continue to be critical parts of the solution.

Why reengaging patients matters

Some patients have postponed appointments from a few months to more than a year; yet regular appointments are the best method for flagging early signs of disease. Consistent visits provide for lifestyle discussions and essential treatment for chronic conditions. These interventions can be the difference between life and death.
 
Social isolation and loneliness also have been at an all-time high. There is robust data that these emotional conditions lead to depression, substance abuse and even premature mortality. Often loneliness can cause “fight-or-flight” signaling, which weakens the immune system. Patients who reengage sooner, are honest with their providers and practice recommended daily activities, such as meditation, exercise and yoga, can have successful recoveries faster with less relapse.

Reengagement equals better outcomes and more loyalty

The more healthcare organizations encourage patients to return to routine appointments and become part of the decision-making team, the better the outcomes. The more improved the outcomes are, the more well-rounded the relationship with the healthcare provider and staff, which leads to greater patient loyalty. 
 
Patients aren’t the only variable in the engagement equation. Healthcare employees who are encouraged to be part of the patient care team feel valued and appreciated, leading to more rewarding careers. Team communication leads to improved patient care and high satisfaction for both healthcare staff and patients. Happier healthcare employees and patients will translate to financial benefits for healthcare organizations.

How to appeal to different types of patients

Emotions associated with healthcare reengagement vary. Providers who understand their community’s unique needs can address concerns specifically. Customizing outreach strategies and tailoring messages to individual consumer segments are necessary to succeed in getting more patients to return.
 
Martec’s findings bring that point home by describing each of the four consumer segments in the nationwide study, which range from apprehensive to confident. Some patients may be more comfortable with remote versus in-person engagement, so offerings and messaging should be customized to fit each group’s preferences.
 
Here’s an overview of each segment:
  1. Apprehensive reengagers: 22% of those surveyed, ages 35 to 54, highly health literate, express the highest level of negative emotions (“discomfort” and “dread”) about reengaging with healthcare providers in a hospital or an office setting. This group also has reported the greatest negative change in their mental health. They are skeptical about the accuracy of remote visits versus in-person care. This group will need the most guidance. Emphasizing how far virtual medicine has come will be important, along with showing success stories. Communication that physicians can seamlessly order lab tests, which patients can have collected at a nearby lab service, also will be critical. For in-person visits, providers should reinforce that safety and cleaning protocols are always followed, and that incidence of exposure is very low.
  2. Concerned reengagers: 31% of those surveyed, the oldest segment at age 55 or more, living in both rural and suburban communities, are most uncomfortable with the technology required for telehealth and mourn the possibility of losing the personal connection they share with their trusted physicians. While this group has a high-risk profile, they have the most negative emotions toward remote visits. This segment needs reassurance about the ease of using virtual technology, instructional guidance that is customized for those with visual or audio issues, and examples of older consumers using remote telehealth services successfully. Presenting information about pre-testing of technology and preparing FAQ documents also will help this group. 
  3. Remote reengagers: 30% of those surveyed, the youngest group at ages 18 to 34, mostly living in urban and suburban areas, are most resistant to in-person doctor visits. They like the convenience and ease of remote visits but have some concerns about data security. Healthcare organizations and providers should underscore their system updates regarding secure data and privacy and urge this group to participate in digital wellness platforms and home-based testing. Highlighting how advanced healthcare has become will boost their reengagement levels.  
  4. Finally, the confident reengagers — 17% of those surveyed, ages 35 to 54, mostly urban dwellers — have the lowest level of concern about in-person and remote visits and the highest level of positive emotions. This segment will be the least challenging to reengage and is most capable of seeing the benefits for both in-person and telehealth services.

 

Top reengagement practices for all providers

Providers need to create more touchpoints to address all segments’ anxieties about healthcare experiences: 
  • Use more opportunities on websites, chatbots, social media, wellness blogs and customer reviews to discuss successful case stories of technology use in healthcare and demonstrate the well-being of those patients returning to in-person visits.
  • Address all safety concerns using these platforms to help reduce fears regarding exposure. 
  • Show video demonstrations of what a remote visit looks like and provide examples of what a patient may prepare ahead of time to make a virtual visit more productive and rewarding.

 

Providers also should educate consumers about the significance of being an active decision-maker in their health. Instead of feeling like the patient is having things done to them, let them know they are in the driver’s seat: 

  • Communicate that patients can weigh in on their medical options, ask any questions and create their own health goals.
  • Motivate them to develop a medical biography with a history of conditions and medications.
  • Encourage patients to state not only their physical condition but their emotional and mental state.

 

Consumers more involved in their care develop healthier preventive behaviors and better self-management. When healthcare organizations invest in patient reengagement, patients can improve their own health, which is the ultimate goal for everyone.

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About the Authors

Jim Durkin
Jim Durkin
Founding partner The Martec Group

Barb Lhota
Barb Lhota
Consultant The Martec Group
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