What Will it Take to Get Patients Back to See Their Doctor?

By Rand O’Leary, MSA, FACHE
Twitter: @LearyRand

The pandemic has changed many things about our culture and daily life. Even with a likely shift to an endemic state and more “normal” days ahead, many things have changed in the past two years that will not change back to how they were. Among them is the old employment model of emphasizing in-person work. In today’s market, if employers want to attract and retain talent, they must offer flexible work options.

I wonder if this shift in the marketplace at large might hold the key to an issue that has been plaguing healthcare for years, far before the pandemic began. How do we encourage patients to return to their doctor to continue to receive the care they need? In so many areas of healthcare, from cancer to heart health to chronic conditions, early detection and maintenance are critical to the long-term health of patients. Yet, the numbers of patients who return to their provider for continued care remain low.

Could patients want from their doctors what modern employees are looking for from their employers: flexible options that meet their needs? While research tells us that there are a variety of factors that can impact a person’s ability to see their doctor regularly, that does not let healthcare leaders off the hook! We must emphasize a patient-centered approach to medicine. Everything we do is in service to the patient. Too often we set up systems that work for doctors, hospitals, and facilities, but not for the patient. This provider-centric approach is harmful to the health of those we serve, and we as leaders must focus on what we can do to make patients more comfortable coming to see their doctor.

Here are some strategies I recommend to place patients at the center of our work:

  • Flexible appointments: Patient-directed scheduling offers appointments at times that work for the patient, including nights and weekends, rather than a “Here’s-your-appointment-time, take-it-or-leave-it” approach. Providers can also offer multiple ways to schedule: by phone, computer, cell phone, apps, or self-scheduling platforms.
  • Telehealth options: Not every patient needs to be seen in the office. For many, medication management is all they need, and it is frustrating to many patients to have to sit in a waiting room, then wait again in an exam room, only to get their prescription renewed. We as providers need to be understanding of what the patient wants and the way they want it. Another segment of growing telehealth technology is remote monitoring, which helps patients manage chronic illnesses outside the hospital. For conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes, patients can work with their doctor remotely to recover and manage their illness from home.
  • Visible safety measures: When patients come into the office, it needs to be very visible that each and every staff person is committed to their safety. Handwashing when entering the exam room, installing barriers, and masking are all effective ways to create and communicate a safe environment. The key is that the patient must be able to see all these measures. If they don’t see it happening, they won’t feel safe.
  • Proactive measures for patients with chronic conditions: Providers should make phone calls or email patients they haven’t seen in a while who they know are managing conditions like COPD or heart failure. Check in to see what they need—even before the appointment is scheduled. Be proactive in keeping the communication lines open with these patients.
  • Bring the care to at-risk populations: Find ways to come to those patients in at-risk populations, rather than insisting they come to us. This can be done a lot of different ways, such as clinics in community centers, churches, or schools, or deploying mobile units. As a leader, it is essential that you intentionally build relationships within your community to know how to reach at-risk people in need of care in a way that works for them.

For many patients, consistent visits with their doctor are essential for their health and well-being. But we must take a note from trends at-large and find ways to offer them flexibility that puts their needs, not the needs of the provider or facility, at the center of the care we offer. As we shift into this new phase in the pandemic, we as leaders have an opportunity to listen to the communities we serve, shift our focus, and think creatively to serve our patients in a way that works for them, not just us.

This article was originally published on the Rand O’Leary blog  and is republished here with permission.