Empathetic access: The right attitude and less waiting are keys to bringing patients back amid COVID-19

Insight Article - July 27, 2020

Marketing/Social Media

Patient Access

Patient Engagement

MGMA Staff Members
The COVID-19 pandemic remains at peak levels in many parts of the United States, and consumers are still feeling anxiety and stress about coronavirus.

This is a challenge that healthcare providers must address with “empathetic access,” according to Rob Klein, founder and CEO, Klein & Partners, based upon his findings from a Wave III survey conducted June 10-15.

Access the full Wave III webinar presentation
Read more about Klein’s Wave II study.

More than two-thirds (67%) of consumers report not knowing anyone personally infected with coronavirus, and nearly as many (64%) expressed that they had no need to be tested. But this doesn’t mean that people sense life is returning to normal, Klein noted. Hesitation is creeping back into people’s minds, as fewer Americans said they would immediately consider eating in restaurants, shopping at malls, going to gyms and participating in other indoor activities.

Getting patients to embrace virtual visits

There’s a further complication for healthcare providers working to bring patients back: About 60% of patients have not tried virtual visits, and the top reasons for avoiding them, per Klein’s research, include:
  • Complaints that virtual visits are too impersonal
  • Not knowing enough about virtual visits
  • Not trusting the quality of care online
  • Concerns about online privacy.

Most of these objections need to be overcome quickly to reestablish patient volumes, Klein said, as well as avoid adverse outcomes from delayed care: More than half of patients (57%) in his survey reported having a medical condition requiring immediate attention. “We have to help them get that way,” which means proactively messaging patients about virtual care options.

To do this, Klein recommends leveraging the trust placed in physicians. “Physicians are the face and voice of healthcare brands … We've got to make sure we provide them with all of the resources and the learning so that they can be that brand voice for our organizations,” Klein added.

That focus on the doctor’s role in informing patients and helping them come back in for care is underscored by Klein’s report, which finds that patients still report checking federal sources [such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] for information on the pandemic, but more of them are beginning to err toward their doctors’ websites.

Mental/behavioral health needs growing

Klein’s research found a significantly high rate of patients reporting that they are either waiting to reschedule (26%) or couldn’t reschedule (11%) mental health sessions, compared to 31% who rescheduled appointments during the pandemic and 29% who changed to virtual visits.

Given the heightened anxieties about how the country is making slow progress in containing the spread of coronavirus and the need for prolonged stay-at-home measures, Klein foresees mental health needs going “through the roof,” and that there may be a lag effect before seeing the true impact in heightened rates of suicide and substance abuse along already spiking numbers of divorces, job losses and bankruptcies.

Klein’s own research found that many of the most-cited responses for medical conditions that patients reported as needing immediate care — stress and anxiety, depression, high blood pressure/hypertension — have a direct or indirect connection to mental health.

“This is a windy, twisty road with bump and blind spots,” Klein added. “People in this time period, they’re very anxious right now.” Those anxieties can interfere with normal cognitive reasoning skills. “As healthcare providers … we have to be there for them,” he added. “We have to recognize they’re forgetting things,” which further supports the need for proactive messaging about getting patients back to see their providers.

Attitude and safety matter in retaining patients

When Klein outlined his Wave II survey, he noted that “time is the new currency” for patients, and that their access concerns showed they would switch or stay with providers based on how soon they could get an appointment.

Access remains a major consideration that can affect where patients seek care. Klein’s report found that 23% of patients would definitely switch an inpatient procedure or surgery to an outpatient setting if it meant they could get in sooner.

In his Wave III report, Klein cited attitude and safety as the top two factors for patient loyalty, specifically in regard to:
  • Providers being perceived as lacking empathy
  • Difficulty in getting rescheduled
  • Not demonstrating safety and cleaning procedures to protect against coronavirus.

Patients ages 18 to 44 were significantly more likely to switch for any of these reasons compared to older counterparts, especially as it relates to safety concerns, as older patients often don’t seem as worried about safety.

Klein’s report also noted that patients largely just want straightforward information in messaging from their providers. “Patients get the drill,” he said, reflecting on their preferences for messages about:
  • How to prepare for a visit and what to expect upon arrival
  • How the practice is handling COVID-19 patients
  • How social distancing is maintained in the facility
  • How the facility is cleaned.

Invoking the first inaugural address by President Franklin Roosevelt, Klein noted that the speech was tailored for Americans who were looking for action to help bring them out of the Great Depression. “That’s what Americans want right now: They want action,” Klein said. “Whatever you’re messaging, it’s got to be, ‘here’s what we are doing now.’”

Additional resources

  • For regular updates on important issues related to medical group practices’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, regularly check the collection of COVID-19-related MGMA Stat polls, which provide real-time data on the true impact the crisis has had on the healthcare industry.
  • MGMA’s full range of tools, content and stories from the COVID-19 crisis can be found in the MGMA COVID-19 Recovery Center, which is also regularly updated with the latest information developing from Washington, D.C., on legislative and regulatory changes regarding the pandemic.
  • Want to learn more from industry leaders about best practices learned during the pandemic and other stories of success? Consider joining us Oct. 19-21 for the Medical Practice Excellence Conference.

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