Ensuring continuous patient communication during COVID-19: Lessons from a large New York medical group

Insight Article

Patient Engagement

Business Operations Technology

Patient Care Technology

Josh Weiner
One of the most significant ways the COVID-19 outbreak has affected healthcare is the shift to virtual care for many primary and specialty care organizations. Never before have so many healthcare providers had to shift their delivery of care for so many patients so quickly.

For many organizations, telehealth has been implemented and rolled out in a matter of days to keep continuity of care for patients.

Tackling this requires significant time and resources, as well as robust communication and patient education. But with a lot of planning and the right tools, healthcare providers are managing this challenge.

Craig Dreher, chief information officer at Community Care Physicians P.C. (CCP), recently shared how his organization managed this difficult task. CCP is a 72-practice group in upstate New York that serves more than 370,000 patients.

CCP had made recent upgrades to its patient communication technology following consolidation in 2018. One of CCP’s goals was to get every practice on the same patient communication system. "It wasn't just that we wanted everyone on the same software, we wanted something that integrated with Allscripts," Dreher explains. "We needed a better tool than what we had, but there were other factors, too. We wanted reminders with voice and text that were flexible, and we wanted real-time, two-way text as well. Of course, the cost was a factor, too."

The new communication system’s implementation was underway just as healthcare organizations were becoming aware of the growing impact of COVID-19 in February 2020. In a matter of days, the organization's priorities changed. Suddenly, the most significant need wasn't reducing front desk workload or no-shows — it was to communicate safety and infection control protocols and to get up and running on telemedicine.

Like many healthcare organizations, CCP had already been considering telemedicine and had some elements in place with a plan to expand over time. "As we saw the spread of COVID-19 approach, we immediately went into action," Dreher recalls. "We established a multi-disciplinary COVID Response Team to digest the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and New York State Department of Health's recommendations and determine what changes were needed to preserve patient care and team safety."

As the workflow changed, CCP used its patient communication system to share updates made to patient appointments and care, as well as the most-recent COVID-19 news. Initially, CCP used email newsletters and text messages to reach patients to let them know about suspended walk-in hours and canceled appointments. CCP used them again to update patients about the new process for visits and share telehealth visit instructions and links to appointment reminders once service was in place.

CCP’s visits dropped dramatically in the first days and weeks of COVID-19, but they are now up to 1,000 telehealth visits a day. For organizations making similar changes, there are best practices to keep in mind:
  • Given the critical nature of staying in contact with patients, try to use patient preferences for communication types. Text and email are often best, but some prefer phone conversations. This is a good time to reach out to patients and ask how they would prefer to be reached to ensure they receive your updates.
  • Communicate regularly and more frequently than normal. Typically, providers limit newsletters and other informational emails to monthly, bimonthly or quarterly. Right now, providers are one of the best sources for accurate information for patients. Communicate every week or two, depending on your location and how quickly things are changing. Patients need information about how to get care from you, as well as updates on shelter-in-place restrictions, orders to wear masks, testing sites, etc.
  • With relaxed rules around telehealth, providers can now conduct phone check-ins, text check-ins and video visits with most patients. With the right tools, it can be easy to get these options in place and be paid for them. Most patients say they are comfortable with these tools, so the key is communicating changes to patients, providing education on how and when to use them, and making sure instructions and links are provided in pre-visit instructions.
  • To further support a new virtual workflow and social distancing when you need to see patients in person, look at options to support digital check-in and registration, online scheduling and electronic payment. For patients visiting your site, use tools such as text messaging to support a virtual waiting room where they text on arrival and you text when they come in.

When it comes to patient engagement for COVID-19, the mantra should be “communicate, communicate, communicate.” You can make many changes to support social distancing or still offer care to patients as long as they know what you are doing, how you are doing it and what they need to do to access it.

Additional resources

About the Author

Josh Weiner
Josh Weiner
Chief Operating Officer Solutionreach Salt Lake City, Utah

Weiner joined Solutionreach from Summit Partners, a leading global growth equity firm. Through his work with Summit Partners, Weiner served on the Solutionreach board of directors for three years. Prior to Summit Partners, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. Weiner has been recognized by Utah Business as a 2017 CXO of the Year and as a 2018 Forty Under 40 Utah Rising Star. Weiner is a graduate of Stanford University and resides in Salt Lake City with his wife, daughter, and golden retriever, Willow. 

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