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COVID-19 patient communication guide for healthcare practices: What patients need to hear and how to tell them

As COVID-19 testing and vaccine efforts now overlap, patients have more questions and concerns. An effective communication strategy by healthcare practices can instill confidence and foster steady visit volume.

One constant throughout the pandemic has been a pressing need for answers to COVID-19 questions — in a situation that sometimes changes daily. Patients’ concerns about (and online searches for) symptoms, treatments, and safety are now matched by a desire for vaccine information.

For patients, knowing where to turn for reliable information among the massive volume of options can be overwhelming. For healthcare providers, determining the most relevant information to share and the best tools to communicate with patients can likewise feel intimidating.

Fortunately, 66 percent of patients look to their healthcare providers as the key source of credible information about the pandemic, according to a 2020 poll. Yet, in PatientPop survey research, more than one fourth of patients said their physician hasn’t shared information about the pandemic — a missed opportunity to connect with and impress patients, enhance the patient experience, and strengthen long-term practice loyalty.

What healthcare practices need to tell patients about COVID-19

Even one year into the COVID-19 crisis, there are two general categories of information you should consider for your patient communications.

Sharing practice-specific COVID-19 information

Any information that may affect how (or whether) a patient receives care from your practice is absolutely essential. This includes any operational changes you’ve needed to implement, like safety screenings, that may impact their experience prior to or during an appointment.

Here are a few examples of critical practice information to share with your patients throughout the pandemic:

  • Any changes in hours of operation, scheduled visit lengths, or reduced service offerings
  • The availability of telehealth, and when you might recommend a virtual visit for your patients. As an example, you may limit patients with certain symptoms to only telehealth appointments.
  • What to expect in advance of an office visit, such as digital registration and COVID-19 symptom questionnaires via text message
  • What to expect when they arrive for an appointment, such as new waiting room guidelines (or waiting in their car) and check-in processes via phone call or two-way text messaging
  • In-person safety protocols such as temperature checks, COVID-19 screenings, disinfection, limit of family or support to one person per patient, use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and social distancing guidelines

Communicating this kind of practice information up front helps instill confidence that you’re not only prioritizing patient care, as usual, but also ensuring the health and safety of your patients and the community. It also helps eliminate any surprises during a potentially confusing time, setting up a more satisfying patient experience even before an appointment.

Sharing community-specific or general COVID-19 information

While providing general information about COVID-19 to your patients — symptoms, prevention — isn’t absolutely necessary, it’s expected. It provides an excellent opportunity to build upon the patient-provider relationship, with you and your practice at the center of trust.

It also keeps your practice top-of-mind, and reaffirms your position as a community expert patients can turn to for guidance during this confusing time.

You also have the opportunity to be the source of information for local needs, such as COVID-19 testing and vaccine sites in your area, stages of vaccine availability, and current status of local business and school operations.

Examples of information to share with your patients include:

  • Where to find updated local COVID-19 information for your community, county, or state, including total case count, testing metrics, and hospitalizations. In most cases, this is provided by the state’s health department.
  • Signs and symptoms of COVID-19, and when and how to access care if needed
  • Information on local COVID-19 testing, including where to receive a test, and the different types of tests available
  • Updates on vaccine eligibility and availability, whether at your office, a local health system, or a mass distribution site
  • Specialty-specific information related to COVID-19. For example, if you’re a cardiologist, share medical expertise on how COVID-19 affects heart health.
  • Reminders that it is critical to maintain routine appointments, get ongoing care for chronic conditions, and seek treatment in the event of a medical emergency. Reiterate strongly that patients cannot delay care due to the pandemic and safety concerns.

Receiving this information from you, your patients’ trusted healthcare provider, further drives loyalty and confirms your role as an expert to answer health-related questions. This level of leadership, online and in person, can introduce your practice to new patients, enhance patient retention and even support long-term practice growth.

The 5 best COVID-19 communication tools for healthcare practices

Now that you have a couple checklists detailing what patients need to hear about COVID-19, your practice has to deliver the information effectively. This requires a comprehensive, multi-channel strategy that reaches as many patients as possible — while minimizing additional work for your practice.

  1. Your practice website

Keeping your website updated with COVID-19 information accomplishes two business goals: First, it improves your opportunities to appear and rank well in search results answering COVID-19 queries. Second, it positions your practice as a vital online information reference for local patients.

If you haven’t already, create a dedicated page (or section) of your practice website for COVID-19 material, add it to your site navigation, and update the content as often as necessary. This makes it easy for patients to find what they need, whether they’re new to your site (that’s the majority) or return visitors.

For urgent or timely information — availability of the vaccine at your practice is the perfect example — consider creating a “sticky” banner that appears at the top of each site page and links directly to your COVID-19 page(s) or online appointment scheduler. If you use text message reminders, link to these pages within your messages.

  1. Email campaigns to patients

One of the most effective and personal modes of patient communication is email — and it’s one of the most reliable for patient action and retention. Sending current COVID-19 information to your patients via email keeps them informed by way of a timely update. Just as your practice website exists for people to come find you, your email campaigns are for you to reach out to them.

If possible, segment your patient population by age, health history, or other demographics, and send each relevant, targeted information to each segment. This can be especially valuable to relay how COVID-19 impacts patients with certain conditions, and when vaccines are available for eligible age groups.

3. 2-way text messaging with patients

In 2020 PatientPop survey research, patients show an overwhelming preference for text messaging when it comes to appointment-related communications. Therefore, if you need to remind patients about regular care they may have postponed or avoided, or you’re ready to book appointments to administer the COVID-19 vaccine, a text message from your practice is ideal.

As mentioned above, the key is to include a link directly to your online scheduling, or to call your practice with one tap from a mobile device. Considering the high frequency of text message use, and the increased usage of smartphones during the pandemic, a text message is likely to be seen and drive a response.

  1. Blog posts 

If you feature a healthcare blog on your practice website (recommended to improve your search results and attract more patients), be sure to create posts related to the most frequent COVID-19 questions and concerns.

Integrating this content into other blog topics is an effective aspect of your online content strategy — a steady stream of regular, timely blog posts serve to educate and inform patients posing healthcare queries on Google or other search engines. Your healthcare blog can help drive search engine optimization and help prospective patients seeking information find your practice.

  1. Social media

A comprehensive social media strategy lets you reach patients where they spend a considerable amount of time, especially during the pandemic. Specifically, channels like Facebook and YouTube can be great platforms for sharing COVID-19 information with immediacy.

As a community-minded social media platform, Facebook is ideal for broadcasting information on general COVID-19 topics like signs and symptoms, where and when to seek care, and testing and vaccine availability. If you currently or plan to offer the COVID-19 vaccine at your practice, you can use Facebook to share details with your local patients as soon as you have them. Because the posts are timestamped, people can immediately see how recently the information was shared.

YouTube is an excellent choice for archiving information via video, and bringing your personality and brand to the forefront with potential patients. You and your practice can create and share brief educational videos on COVID-19, such as how the vaccine works, and how COVID-19 is impacting various patient populations in your area.

 

Also available:

Introducing new patients to your practice by meeting the demand for COVID-19 information

Five fast tips: How healthcare practices should use social media during COVID-19

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