Even during an unprecedented healthcare crisis, it is imperative that people continue to take care of themselves, both physically and mentally. But due to concerns about exposure to coronavirus, people are not venturing en masse to emergency rooms or hospitals, a trend we experienced during the SARS epidemic, and routine care with physicians is slipping. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study revealed an estimated 41% of U.S. adults had delayed or avoided medical care, including urgent or emergency care (12%) and routine care (32%) due to coronavirus-related concerns. In order to keep our society healthy, the healthcare industry should support patients being in the driver’s seat when it comes to accessing medical treatment. There are a number of ways to empower patients to take control of their healthcare journey including self-triage, online scheduling, a virtual waiting room, and telehealth.
Allow patients to self-triage
There’s a backlog of patients who avoided care during the height of the pandemic who now need to get back on track with routine and elective appointments, procedures and surgeries. Between adding new appointments and rescheduling previous ones, there are two ways to empower patients to seek treatment: self-triage and health risk assessments (HRAs).
Self-triage empowers patients by asking them to consider their symptoms and needs to make a smart decision about the best way to schedule care. For example, a patient with an earache would be routed to an urgent care center, while someone with severe stomach pain may need emergency treatment. Through the use of technology shared by your provider, a patient can self-triage by clicking through a series of questions to determine the best next steps for getting medical care.
HRAs are another tool providers can use to engage patients with scheduling. An HRA is a survey instrument used to collect health information. It is typically coupled with a process that includes biometric testing to assess an individual’s health status, risks, and habits. HRAs are a great way to connect with patients, communicate information about their health, determine their risk for a chronic condition, and encourage them to take the next best step in their care. A good health risk assessment will also stratify risk into levels – high, moderate, and low – to provide the patient and provider with valuable triage information by identifying the highest risk and need for an appointment. Especially important is the ability to educate and guide patients to the appropriate venue of care based on their self-reported symptoms.
Empower patients to use online scheduling
A consumer-friendly scheduling experience is an integral part of engaging patients to take actionable steps as part of their healthcare journey. Health systems should ensure that patients can easily navigate the appointment scheduling process online across specialties as appropriate. Online scheduling solutions should provide patients with the ability to search for appointments based on a number of physician criteria, including location, gender, languages spoken, hospital affiliations, and sub-specialties. Providing patients with filters to select their preferred provider gives them the convenience, choice, and control they crave. Setting up automatic reminders or even paying copays or fees in advance helps smooth the process for patients who are looking for a seamless and integrated medical experience.
Provide a virtual waiting room experience
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, emergency department utilization declined by 42 percent across the U.S., with the steepest decreases occurring in areas with higher infection rates, according to data collected from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program (NSSP). By postponing care, patients are at a greater risk for worsening outcomes – especially those who use the emergency department as a safety net due to a lack of access to primary care and telehealth. So how can health systems ease patient fears and help encourage patients to return to the emergency room? Create a virtual waiting room for your urgent care center or emergency department.
Using online scheduling, providers can create a virtual waiting room that allows patients to check in online for emergency and urgent care visits, then wait safely at home, in the car, or nearby to receive arrival instructions and wait time information. A dedicated parking sign close to the front door gives patients even more security to get in and out of the facility quickly. This approach alleviates crowded waiting rooms, which limits potential exposure to coronavirus. With a virtual waiting room strategy, health systems can help patients make reservations, space out their arrival times, and safeguard social distancing measures – all while alleviating patient fears. As health systems redesign their patient engagement strategy to boost patient confidence and drive utilization, incorporating a virtual waiting room strategy is a no-brainer.
Offer telehealth where possible
Patients crave efficient and more convenient ways to access healthcare. That’s where telehealth and digital mental health offer options for patients. When utilizing telehealth visits, patients don’t experience the frustration of getting stuck in traffic on the way to the doctor, long wait times before the exam, or missing half a day of work for an appointment that’s over in the blink of an eye. Patients now realize they can often receive a prescription for an antibiotic or a consult for a sick child from the comfort and safety of their own homes.
Telehealth remains a vital venue of care for rural and underserved populations as long as reliable internet is in place, but during COVID-19, it also expanded access to care for all patients who can now seek out telehealth visits with a wider choice of providers, not just those located nearest to them. Of note, by improving access to lower-cost primary care, telehealth can help reduce expensive emergency room visits and avoid the need for more complex and expensive treatment. Beyond primary care, telehealth also increases access to mental health providers and other specialists who may be even further out of range for patients in rural areas, small cities, and even suburbs. While telehealth is becoming an increasingly accepted practice of medicine, it is not the answer for all patients, especially those without access to the internet, when a language barrier exists, or when a person does not have a safe space to talk freely.
Become a trusted and reliable voice
With countless sources of information available and rumors abounding—especially in the midst of the pandemic — it is essential that healthcare providers become the trusted authority to provide accurate, actionable facts and advice to their patients. Patients are listening for guidance from their providers on how to stay safe. With a myriad of conflicting messages in mainstream media, people are looking for a calm, knowledgeable medical authority who can consistently provide updated and trustworthy information. Consumers are looking to healthcare providers to alleviate their fears and concerns and explain the measures they’ve implemented to keep patients safe and healthy. Healthcare organizations and providers that become the trusted source of COVID-19 information have an advantage in not only becoming an authoritative voice but also improving patient health outcomes.
Empowering patients to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to obtaining medical care is a key way to engage them to take action. Providing options such as self-triage, online scheduling, virtual waiting rooms and telehealth, and being a trusted and reliable voice are actionable ways patients can drive their own wellbeing, make informed healthcare decisions, and get back on track with their physical and mental health, on their terms.