Time and availability to forge a powerful personal connection with patients were, without a doubt, the greatest benefits of concierge medicine in a pre-coronavirus world. As the pandemic unfolded with increasing severity over the winter, the doctors in our concierge medicine network skillfully adapted and innovated to ensure they remain connected, continuously, with patients who needed them more than ever before. I’m privileged to share highlights of how we all worked together to not only use every tool at our disposal, but rapidly created new ones when needed. From telemedicine, virtual town halls and weekly video messages to a simple but deeply appreciated phone check-in, our physicians shine brightly as a beacon of comfort in unprecedented times.
A trusted source of information
From the earliest days of the COVID-19 crisis, people were dealing with hourly barrages of conflicting and wildly inaccurate information that stoked anxiety and fear. Our physicians quickly recognized the need to provide accurate, timely facts, infused with a great deal of empathy for patients dealing with an unparalleled crisis. Because each physician was operating in a vastly different environment, we helped craft email updates tailored to the geographic area and their individual office. These email campaigns became weekly missives, resulting in tens of thousands of personalized ‘touches’ to patients eager for information, reflected in record-high email open rates of almost 70% (compared to an industry average of 12%). The theme that ‘we will get through this together’ resonated strongly with patients when conveyed by the physician they trusted most.
Additionally, we offered physicians a new platform for creating and sending short, personal video messages via text which proved an ideal medium for everything from demonstrating proper handwashing techniques and making DIY face masks to explaining the various COVID-19 treatments being explored. As California physician Morris H. told us: “I am almost overwhelmed by the gratitude of so many patients who viewed my video. It is such a lovely way to touch the hundreds who viewed it, and then shared it.” Patients were effusive in their praise, writing comments that included: “That was a great pick me up! Thank you for all you are doing,” and “Wow! Very informative! Appreciate learning the basic scientific thoughts behind the claims we are hearing about.” And most importantly, “Keep ‘em coming.”
By mid-March, as it became evident that even weekly email and video updates couldn’t keep pace with the overwhelming flow of new information, we updated our physician websites with real-time newsfeeds from Health and Human Services and local health departments in every market we serve. A COVID-19 resources page was also added, enabling physicians to share a wide variety of materials and links to trusted sites with patients and the larger community.
As the situation continued to evolve, physicians became even more creative in their efforts to educate and reassure, using Facebook Live events to engage patients and interested viewers across the country, filming podcasts, and inviting patients to participate in interactive Zoom tele-meetings. The feedback received was phenomenal, and humbling, as physicians realized the wide-ranging effects of their thoughtful outreach. We were also gratified to serve as host for one of the first ‘virtual town halls,’ launched by a prominent Specialdocs practice in Connecticut, then in the epicenter of the pandemic. The group’s discussion on Zoom with a local government official and hospital ER physician was recorded and posted on the city’s website for community viewing.
Keeping it personal
“As far back as medical school, we knew our commitment to this profession was for a lifetime. I’m incredibly grateful that my change to a smaller concierge practice several years ago made it possible to be readily available to patients, with time and energy to help them through this difficult period.” —Jeff W, CT concierge physician
The impact of COVID-19 social distancing requirements was particularly harsh for elderly patients, who frequently felt completely unmoored from their usual routine and became increasingly alarmed at the high-risk directives aimed at them and the need to manage multiple chronic conditions. Our network of physicians responded with the most personalized and effective tool in their arsenal – a personal phone call. Each day, physicians and their staff checked in with a different group of patients, to answer questions, assess how they were coping and ensure that prescriptions were up to date if a self-quarantine became necessary.
The higher tech solution of telemedicine was also embraced with surprising ease, even by patients far removed from the generation of digital natives. To help our physicians offer the convenience of virtual visits to patients of all ages sheltering at home, we swiftly vetted out the top telemedicine platforms, and in the span of two days, selected doxy.me as an affordable, user-friendly and HIPAA-compliant choice. More than 70% of physicians in our network are now using some form of telemedicine, and reporting highly satisfied patients as a result. A physician-client in Iowa City marveled about his first, highly successful telemedicine visit in March, with a 96-year-old patient. “Normally she is active and out in the community but is now doing the right thing to stay close to home. Our virtual consultation kept us in touch about her medical issues and respects social distancing at the same time.”
Connecting Our Docs
Our network of physicians, while proudly independent, welcomed opportunities to collaborate and learn from each other as the coronavirus presented challenges never experienced in our lifetime. PPE and testing shortages, hydroxychloroquine, IV Vitamin C, social distancing, antibody testing, recovery plasma – the developments continued to come in fast and furiously. We established weekly clinical teleconference calls where the group’s diverse perspectives helped make sense of all the information, and often, misinformation. Our calls have also featured experts to address notable issues; among them, a revealing discussion with a psychologist on managing mental health during a pandemic, advice from a former CNN reporter on crafting compelling video messages, and an illuminating look at antibody testing from a laboratory medicine physician. Specialdocs physicians have generously shared their expertise as well, in particular, an early adopter of telemedicine who held a series of Q&A sessions on the physician user experience, and an infectious disease specialist who shared insights on COVID-19 in a podcast filmed for our network.
We also developed a COVID-19 Resource Center for healthcare professionals on our corporate website, featuring CDC updates, credible research and journal articles, revenue assistance information for independent practitioners, and podcasts and videos created by our physician network. It’s a rich and constantly growing source of knowledge that we’re pleased to make available to the medical community for as long as necessary.
Finally, we hope and pray for the time when the need for resource centers, newsfeeds, weekly updates, online town halls, support networks and social distancing fades into nothing more than a memory. What will remain in our collective consciousness, however, is the irreplaceable, sacrosanct bond between dedicated physicians and their patients. A message recently shared by a patient in hard-hit Rockland County, NY explains why. After expressing her gratitude for the frequent, helpful communications sent throughout the pandemic, she reflected on the personal phone call she received from her concierge physician when the community’s shelter in place mandate was first issued.
“He called just to check in on me and see how I was feeling, how I was coping,” said Susan A. “We talked about non-medical things too, like what I was reading and watching. I have the highest regard for him in every way…and I will never forget that phone call.”
Terry Bauer is CEO of Specialdocs, a pioneering concierge practice consulting company established in 2002 that has helped physicians nationwide transform their practices with the industry’s most customized and sustainable concierge model.