Cementing your reputation for the future: Bringing patients back

Patients do not want to return to the hospital.

Over half of Americans (55 percent) indicate they or someone in their household have either delayed or skipped medical care (including 5 percent who have skipped going to the ED) since the outbreak began, according to our recent survey conducted in partnership with Public Opinion Strategies. In addition, when people were asked how safe they feel going to a medical facility right now, the average was 5.4 on a scale of one to 10. That’s not a good number for facilities that, by definition, exist to help people feel better.

One more data point: When asked how long it might take to re-engage with the medical system in different ways, more than one-third of respondents said it would take them longer than seven months to schedule an elective procedure either in a hospital or outpatient setting. That has implications for chronic conditions as well as hospital revenue.

In an earlier post we talked about what providers can do to assuage fear and begin bringing patients back. That topic is more complex than a single blog post, though, so here we’re focusing on a critical component of the communications needed to restore patient volume: Emotion.

Show, don’t (just) tell

It may be tempting to tick off a list of safety measures your facilities are using to protect patients and staff from coronavirus. That’s a good start, but by no means sufficient. Fear is not entirely an issue of fact or information, it’s an issue of deep-seated emotion. You have to tell stories about and demonstrate the level of safety you provide.

“We know people are sitting at home with chest pain not coming to the emergency room because they’re afraid,” said Dr. David Pate, former CEO of St. Luke’s Health System and current of-counsel affiliate of Jarrard Inc. “These fears are not irrational, but they’re probably not well-informed, and providers can help that.

“We need to reach out to the local press and media and to our stakeholders. Let’s take them on a virtual tour of our hospital. Let’s have doctors and nurses show them what we do at our emergency rooms. Let’s show how we’ve redesigned the whole process to keep people who might have this scary infection separate from those who don’t.”

Use your trusted voices

We often talk about the messenger being as important as the message. That has never been truer than today, as providers work to reassure patients that it’s safe to return to the clinic or hospital for their care. When asked what reassurances they would need to feel safe going back to a hospital, 44 percent of our poll respondents said a drop in COVID-19 cases in their area and 25 percent said their doctor’s blessing. Their “local hospital saying it’s safe” came in at only 15 percent.

This suggests that, despite the trust people have in hospitals, the personal relationship with their doctor is far more important. And, again, it points to the value of the emotional (i.e., relational) appeal – it’s not just facts and figures put out by a provider indicating safety.

Talk to your clinical staff, ask them what questions they’re hearing from the community and use that feedback to create messaging that the same clinicians can then take back to their patients.

“Look for the opportunities to showcase your staff, your doctors,” Pate said. “Some of these messages will be better received coming from a doctor, so figure out what the message is and who the right person is to deliver the message. This is also an opportunity for you to highlight the amazing heroism of your employees and the great things they are doing.”

*Note: People who work in healthcare and their loved ones also have concerns about hospital safety, our survey shows. You will likely need to help them through the emotional process of feeling comfortable, too – before they’re ready to be messengers helping to bring patients back. We’ll be discussing that in future posts.

Watch your language

A word of warning: Another temptation is to overstate your great work and imply something that isn’t true. We are beginning to see restart campaigns that can easily be read as a hospital saying they are safe from COVID-19. Though these systems are not actually claiming to have eliminated any chance of coronavirus appearing within their facilities, the way the campaign is framed can be interpreted that way, especially by a worried public hungry for reassurance.

Imagine the questions if another patient tests positive or, worse, dies due to COVID-19 after that campaign is launched?” Don’t fall into the trap of putting a stamp on your organization that says, “We’re safe.” Instead, create materials that clearly explains how you are working to contain and prevent COVID-19. It will take slightly more work than a catchy logo, but the clarity and transparency will pay off in the long run.

David Shifrin