The COVID-19 pandemic has posed the greatest challenge to healthcare delivery in a century.
As private practices began reopening their doors for in-person visits, pandemic recommendations from the AMA, CDC, and states required practices to be flexible — at the ready to adapt to changing regulations, and enact operational adjustments as the virus progresses or recedes.
As a result, doctors and practice managers had to adjust to changing office workflows, potentially irregular staff schedules (especially if a team member became ill), and the rapid adoption of telehealth visits to complement in-office appointments.
Now, practices are facing an even greater call for business flexibility with the continued increase in COVID-19 cases, which is severe in some regions. As many states revert to previous business restrictions, or pause or slow their reopening plans, doctors must consider how to react to changes that continue to occur.
PatientPop recommends the following three tips to keep your practice running smoothly through change, and ready to communicate everything from required closures and changing office hours, to convenient new tools and telehealth options.
1) Communicate frequently with patients to keep them informed.
During this time, patients put their trust in you and expect you to be the expert. 66% of patients rely on their own doctor most for COVID-19 information.
Therefore, it’s essential to be proactive in communicating with patients, especially as the situation changes at your practice, and in your region.
To start, keep all your practice and provider information updated and accurate online, covering your website and all online listings on sites such as Google, Facebook, and WebMD.
If you want to change anything — for instance, your hours or care services — keep the information highly visible by prioritizing your website and Google business profile. Your website is one part of the internet where you control just about everything, so take advantage of it. Update your homepage with any critical updates you think patients would want to know. Consider dedicating a separate section for specific information (such as COVID-19 updates), and try adding a pop-up or promo space to draw attention to that information.
You can also regularly send emails or text messages to your patients, to proactively reach out with answers to commonly asked questions, before patients even contact you. Social media and blog posts from your practice are particularly useful to address frequent questions, too.
To expand your presence as a trusted medical leader in your community, consider becoming an expert source of information for your local media (newspapers, TV news stations). You can contact your local outlets with your medical qualifications and ask to be listed as a source of expertise. Media may then request to interview you about specific medical questions related to the pandemic, or your specialty.
Just remember to share changes with your staff first before sharing it with patients, especially in a crisis situation. This ensures everyone is aligned with the right information across your practice, and know just how to communicate with patients.
Whether you have a team of three or 30, if your staff doesn’t have a clear understanding of what’s going on, neither will your patients. Ideally, share information with staff during a daily meeting (in person or remote, as the case demands), and follow up with an email on any key changes, explaining why and how changes will be made.
Transparency in communication is critical for staff and patients right now, so it’s also also okay to note when you don’t have an immediate answer to a question. Admit you don’t know or aren’t sure, and get back to a patient, staff member, or media journalist after finding the answer.
2) Implement technologies that automate manual tasks.
Throughout your daily workflow, manual tasks might now be a) as time-consuming as ever, b) potentially unsafe due to COVID-19, or c) not possible at all due to safety changes, or when staff is working from a remote location. However, the work must still get done for you to keep seeing patients.
With the right technology, you can automate many manual tasks while meeting the patient demand for convenience, safety, increased communication, and flexibility as conditions change.
Here are a few examples:
- Instead of a patient intake clipboard and paper, use digital patient registration. Patients can then fill out your forms online, from home, and save everyone time before the appointment.
- Help patients book their appointments easily by offering online scheduling on your website. Do this wherever you can: There are 50+ listings sites that offer scheduling functionality with your professional profile.
- Rather than using a manual phone call list, automate appointment reminders, sending them to patients by text message and email.
- Instead of a full volume of in-person visits, offer more virtual care. With the right telehealth platform, you’ll bring greater comfort and convenience to patients, and save time with providers and staff — especially the time it takes to implement safety procedures with each in-office patient.
- Eliminate your in-office waiting area, and instead use text messaging or a phone call to notify patients when their exam room is ready (while they wait in their car or in a designated outside area).
- Get rid of the fax machine, and start using a digital fax service, with notifications that let your staff know when new incoming faxes have arrived.
Updating your practice management technologies can help you make changes quickly as the pandemic changes, keep patients safe and satisfied with online tools they prefer, and track your business progress.
If you use conventional, time-consuming methods to get things done, you’ll lag behind at a time when you have other practice priorities and safety concerns to manage on a daily basis.
Think about which of the above changes could make the greatest impact on your efficiency and productivity, or just make your staff’s day easier — whether they’re in the office or managing administrative work elsewhere.
3) Take advantage of telehealth and promote it to patients.
There are two simple ways to think about telehealth at your practice:
1. It’s essential when offices are closed.
2. It’s beneficial when offices are open.
Telehealth is the ultimate virtual practice tool right now, and is absolutely necessary for any flexible, prepared practice. At this point, just about every practice has delivered virtual care, and has experienced the advantages and potential pitfalls.
If the situation in your state or county forces you to reduce hours or services, or even close temporarily, telehealth keeps you seeing patients and collecting revenue. When you can see patients in person, virtual care delivers benefits to your practice and should be integrated into your overall strategy.
With three of four patients now saying they’re comfortable with virtual visits, you can use telehealth to meet patient demand, reduce no-shows, and even improve the provider experience. Of course, treating patients remotely also continues to reduce risk for both you and your patients.
Beyond the necessity of telehealth during the health crisis, it’s important to establish a telehealth strategy for your practice. Here are some considerations:
- Assess and review the types of visits that are ideal for telehealth, regardless of need. For instance, consider how much of your clinical work is done by just referencing health history, and looking and listening during the encounter. These are the types of visits you don’t always need in person.
- When deciding on a telehealth platform for synchronous audio-video, you don’t want to stick with quick-fix options that have been popular while HIPAA requirements have been loosened. They’re fine for now, but you’ll need to be HIPAA-compliant when the national emergency is lifted.
- Think about telehealth as an integral component of your practice, and not an add-on that requires you to manage it separately. The way in which you implement and use the technology should reflect that.
- Have a fluid telehealth strategy in place, and communicate it often to your staff. This includes which providers are seeing patients virtually, which time slots are dedicated to telehealth care, and whether that changes week to week or even month to month.
- Implement a promotion and medical marketing strategy for your telehealth services. This includes updating your website, and highlighting telehealth on your homepage and within a separate webpage focused on telehealth benefits and availability, and any FAQs you’re likely to get from patients. This will keep patients informed, reinforce your brand as a forward-thinking practice, and aid your SEO efforts by way of the extra content.
- Finally, after you’ve determined your telehealth slots, make sure they are included as an option for patients within your online scheduling tool.
The convergence of technology and proactive communication give healthcare practices the flexibility to weather just about any storm. The breakneck pace of change in 2020 — regulations, reimbursement, and even patient concerns — demand an ability to adapt quickly. Having the tools and preparation in place to meet that demand can keep practices performing well through remarkable, ever-changing times.