Use good communication strategies to quell patient fears

August 27, 2020

Healthcare providers must focus on getting patients back in for the care they need—both urgent and preventive.

In June, the CEOs of Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic wrote an op-ed in the New York Times sharing their concerns about the potential death toll among people who have delayed care for other conditions due to fears around COVID-19. They suggested it could be as high as the death toll from the pandemic.

Data from several studies certainly suggests that people are putting off both appointments and emergency care. The op-ed cited data including reported cancer diagnoses being down 45 percent and heart attacks being down 38 percent.

According to a Mayo Clinic study mentioned in the article, it isn’t that people aren’t sick or injured. It is that they aren’t seeking care, and when they do seek care, they are in far worse condition. As a result, they are more likely to die from their illness. So healthcare providers need to start focusing on getting patients back in for the care they need—both urgent and preventive.

One of the critical pieces to getting patients to come in for the care they need is communication. The right patient communication strategy can help alleviate many of the fears patients are feeling right now. Patients need their healthcare providers more than ever, but they also need to know what has changed, what to expect, and what providers are doing to protect them.

A good strategy is to be proactive in communication with patients. First, think about what has changed and what questions patients are likely to have. This would include things like:

  • Will visits be in person or through telehealth? How is that determined?
  • How do patients schedule visits? Get questions answered?
  • How do patients complete paperwork and pay bills without risk of contracting the disease?
  • Do patients need to wear masks? Take other precautions?
  • What precautions is the office taking? Testing staff, barriers at check-in desks, extra cleaning?
  • How will patients wait for appointments? Socially distanced waiting areas or in their car?

Once the answers to these and any other questions are established and the right processes are in place, start communicating. This is a time where over-communication is a good thing. Draft an email newsletter to patients with details about how and when you are reopening fully for patient care, how patients can schedule, or will be rescheduled, what precautions you are taking, and what they should expect when they come in. Sending out a mass email with updates may be something you have to do more than once as things continue to change.

To reinforce your initial communication to all patients, reiterate the same information at the time of scheduling and in intake forms and reminders. For example, if you are asking people to wait in their car and text on arrival, be sure to explain this process when patients schedule. Then, remind them again in their pre-visit instructions in the appointment reminder. If you are assessing people for COVID-19, ask them assessment questions during scheduling and then add a pre-visit screening form to electronic registration forms as well. When they text that they have arrived, have a staff person go out to take their temperature. If a patient has symptoms or fever at check-in, be sure every staff member knows exactly what the process is to address that. Are patients still seen but with added precautions? Are they re-routed to a testing site or other facility? Each person should be able to calmly and clearly convey next steps to the patient.

The key to good patient-provider communication during COVID-19 is that nothing should come as a surprise. Moreover, everything should be explained so patients know what is being done to keep them safe so they can get the care they need. This is why now is also a good time to collect patient communication preferences. Find out if patients prefer text, email, or voice calls. Do they have a language preference? Do they have a timing preference around reminders? Some people want three reminders ahead of an appointment but others just want one the day before. The more personalized and customized patient communication can be, the more effective it will be.

Many patients will likely say they want texting for some, if not all, communications. They may want both automated messages via text and the ability to text back and forth. Real-time, two-way text is a great option during this time because it allows patients to quickly ask questions and get a response. Despite all the effort to communicate new processes, patients may still have anxiety and reach out to verify information about precautions. Text can make that easy for patients and staff.

At the end of the day, clear, relevant patient communication will play a critical part in alleviating concerns patients have about seeing their provider right now. And that will help ensure patients come in and get the care they need.

Josh Weiner is the CEO of SR Health by Solutionreach. He joined Solutionreach from Summit Partners, a leading global growth equity firm. Through his work with Summit Partners, Josh served on the Solutionreach board of directors for three years. Prior to Summit Partners, he was a consultant with McKinsey & Company. Josh is a graduate of Stanford University and resides in Salt Lake City with his wife, daughter, and golden retriever Willow (who often makes cameos at the Solutionreach office). Josh and his family spend as much time as possible exploring the natural wonders of Utah’s mountains and deserts. Connect with him on LinkedIn @joshfweiner