In the school of hard knocks, the coronavirus is the new headmaster.
COVID-19 administered a nearly impossible financial test to physician practices, forcing them to quickly rethink the way they deliver care.
From stay-at-home orders to the canceling of elective procedures, the numbers from a recent MGMA survey clearly tell the story of struggle. On average, the pandemic led to a precipitous drop in patient visits, with practices reporting a 60 percent decrease in volume and a 55 percent decrease in revenue. In the calculus of survival, telehealth adds up for its ability to allow clinicians to care for patients without spreading the virus, and practices have rapidly adopted the technology.
With in-person visits down, social distancing measures in effect, and no current COVID-19 vaccine, providers are leveraging new digital tools to survive. Telehealth has allowed providers to continue to see and connect with patients through virtual consults. Almost overnight, telehealth shot up to over half of provider visits, and researchers expect uptake will increase to nearly 65 percent this year. Patients, too, have embraced the virtual care experience. In a recent poll, two-thirds of respondents said the pandemic has increased their willingness to try telehealth, and virtual care interactions are predicted to exceed 1 billion in 2020.
Digital patient engagement tools, including telehealth, are also facilitating the growth in virtual medical appointments for non-coronavirus issues. Forrester analysts expect general medical care virtual visits to top 200 million this year, up from the original prediction of 36 million for all of 2020. These care delivery shifts—along with relaxed regulations for telehealth use and expanded reimbursement policies—are not only improving the financial forecast for physicians, they are also increasing patient access to virtual care services and providing a valuable solution for chronic and preventative care management to continue improving patient outcomes.
COVID, together with uptake in telehealth, is changing patients’ expectations and experience of care. With both physicians and their patients adjusting to the new normal, many practices are questioning whether it’s possible—or even desirable—to put the genie back in the bottle.
With the arduous adjustments behind us, we can begin to make sense of its lessons. Here are five things COVID-19 is teaching us about the patient experience that will extend long past this pandemic:
Keep it simple. Digital solutions such as telehealth are essential, but they also must be easy to implement and use to get patients to engage. Nine out of 10 patients have access to a patient portal, for example, but less than one-third use them. Cumbersome log-ins and app fatigue (too many choices, too much research, too many downloads) don’t match consumers’ expectations for instantaneous, seamless communication.
Make it familiar. Virtual workflows should match the familiar steps of an in-office visit, but without the hassle of long waits and duplicated forms. Telehealth workflows that map to traditional clinical workflows—from waiting room to payment to intake to doctor’s visit—deliver a more natural, comfortable experience that patients prefer and expect, while allowing physicians and clinical staff to work efficiently and effectively.
Be convenient. Integrating digital check-in technology with the telehealth platform makes intake and registration faster and easier for patients. These tools allow patients to begin the check-in process—including review of systems, consent forms and health risk assessments—without the back-and-forth of phone calls and faxes. Cloud-based software also allows for life’s little interruptions without the risk of losing work. Patients can simply pick up where they left off.
Keep it short. As restrictions lift, practices likely will offer both traditional and virtual appointments. Digital check-in tools, with their ability to capture upstream data, can eliminate the frustration of waiting rooms with their long wait times, tight appointment windows and “Petri dish” environments. Eliminating wait times improves patient satisfaction and trust, with the added benefit of increasing practice productivity.
Put patients first. Digital tools such as telehealth, digital check-in, text messaging, wearables, and online scheduling help keep patients engaged and connected by bringing together services in a way that’s seamless, fast, convenient, and accessible. Patients who are more informed about and involved with their care experience better outcomes.
Patients have had a taste of healthcare on their terms and aren’t going back. Physicians who focus on the patient experience with digital tools that make care more convenient will not only weather the storm but gain competitive advantage in the future.