Patients were told to stay away. How do you bring them back?

Your patients are afraid of you.

And, due to those fears and possibly a newfound appreciation for the convenience of telehealth, a substantial percentage of people have said that they don’t plan on walking back through hospital doors anytime in the next few months.

A new survey conducted by Public Opinion Strategies and Jarrard Inc., found that half of respondents rate their feelings of safety in a healthcare facility as a five or lower on a ten-point scale. Similarly, a third plan on waiting seven months or more to schedule an elective surgery. The fear and delays will only add to the financial stress already experienced by provider organizations, thanks to the novel coronavirus. It could also have a negative effect on individuals’ health as they put of needed care.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be digging into public perception of healthcare organizations and their willingness to engage with providers going forward – and how those providers can either leverage or work through the public’s new perspective. In the meantime, here are a few things every hospital should be working on to lay a foundation for post-surge patient acquisition.

Create a safety plan

Nothing else matters if you don’t have a plan in place the moment you reopen services. Develop protocols, plan for enforcing social distancing at your sites of care as necessary and know exactly how you will keep all facilities safe and clean.

Draft simple, scripted communications

What are you going to tell patients when you call them to reschedule appointments or procedures? They may not want to reschedule at all. If they do, they’ll certainly want to know how you’re going to keep them safe. Reassure the nervous and re-attract the reticent by clearly and confidently communicating your well-thought-out plan. People will have no idea what to do or expect. Pretend your patients have never been to a hospital/doctor’s office before. Guide them through the process they will need to follow and that you’ll be following – using visuals and simple language. A bonus? Going through this exercise may even help you identify opportunities for improving the experience in general for staff and patients alike.

Increase digital access

Providers across the country deployed or increased telehealth access with lightning speed. Years of progress was made in a matter of days thanks to sheer necessity and a rollback of regulatory hurdles. Early data suggests that patients are responding favorably to virtual visits and telehealth, and that they will continue to use it even after in-person visits resume.

Take advantage of this opportunity. When calling patients to reschedule appointments, help them sign up for your patient portal. If they don’t feel comfortable or safe returning to the hospital or clinic, offer to conduct a virtual visit. This also represents an excellent time to revisit your patient portal. Revamping it might be a daunting prospect but having a user-friendly system will be a necessity as more and more patients move to digital interactions.

Lastly, acknowledge that this shift will have significant effects on staff. Begin planning for a new baseline of virtual care and consider how it will affect your operations, physician compensation model, reimbursement strategy and physical facility needs. Develop internal communications for affected employees as soon as possible to let them know that this model of care is here to stay.

Adjust your in-person offerings

Increase access and consider the environment you’re offering, especially if you do not take a staged approach to bringing back patients. Offer early morning, evening and weekend hours when there will fewer people. Space appointments to aid social distancing in your waiting rooms. Consider rearranging your waiting rooms so patients feel safe and comfortable. Offer masks for patients who don’t have them. Put up proper signage in your common areas and check-in desks to outline the steps you are taking to ensure the safety and well-being of everyone inside the building. And, once again, you may find that some of these measures, forced by the current crisis, turn out to be general improvements to the overall experience even after COVID-19 recedes.

Rely on your employees

Doctors and nurses remain almost universally trusted and appreciated. Create comprehensive internal communications around your safety plan. Roll out to staff as far in advance as possible and offer time and mechanisms for questions and feedback. Remember, clinical staff have been through the fire. Whether or not your facility experienced a high coronavirus-related census, you were operating in some form of crisis mode. That means your crew are fatigued, stressed and, potentially, traumatized. They will need guidance and clarity, too. At the same time, once they’re on board and well-equipped, they can serve as your strongest advocates throughout the community you serve.

David Shifrin