For the third time during the COVID-19 pandemic, the PatientPop research team conducted a nationwide survey to understand patients’ recent healthcare experiences and current feelings about seeing their healthcare providers.
Patients’ concerns have evolved over the course of the pandemic. In our December 2020 survey, nearly 1 in 4 patients didn’t feel safe or expressed hesitation about visiting their healthcare providers in person. While that percentage has diminished with time and education, patients now worry about the care they have missed due to the pandemic.
Data from throughout the industry confirms they have reason for concern. A September 2020 Urban Institute study reported 36 percent of adults delayed or skipped care due to fear of exposure to the virus or limited care services. An early 2021 survey from the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) reveals nearly three-quarters of doctors said patients missed cancer screenings, and notes a greater incidence of more advanced disease in new patients than before the pandemic.
We continued our nearly year-long look at patient opinions and preferences with a late March survey.
- More than half of patients have missed or canceled a healthcare appointment due to COVID-19.
- The majority of patients who usually receive regular specialty care experienced an interruption — or no care at all.
- Nearly half of patients are worried about unchecked health issues.
- Most patients hesitant about in-person visits are unsure how practices are keeping them safe.
- Patients prefer three key modes of communication for upcoming appointments.
More than half of patients missed or canceled a healthcare appointment due to COVID-19.
Fifty-five percent of patients say they have missed or canceled an appointment due to the pandemic. Of that group, more than 1 in 4 (26.6%) plan to rebook the appointment, but haven’t yet.
Recommendation for healthcare practices: Your greatest re-engagement opportunity is to book appointments with that 26.6 percent: patients who haven’t yet rescheduled but plan to.
We can assume these patients are motivated to make their way to your practice — they likely just need the right proactive communication to make that appointment happen.
Based on the survey data, this group may need a friendly phone call from your practice. While we almost always recommend emails as effective and enormously time-saving, data supports that these patients likely feel hesitant about their next appointment.
Nearly 40 percent of this patient group say they’ll see their provider(s) again as usual only after they’ve been vaccinated, far above the percentage of overall respondents with that sentiment (17.5%).
This is the ideal group to educate on exactly how your practice keeps patients safe. Tell them about your safety process. Share what they can expect before and during their next appointment. If you’re doing this via phone, offer to re-book that appointment on the spot.
Of course, this initiative will require looking back in your schedule to identify no-shows or cancellations since mid-March of 2020 (or, more realistically, a more recent start date). But this is time well-spent, as the strategy can potentially re-establish a loyal patient and reap rewards far beyond their first “return” appointment.
Secondarily, make sure you have your appointment reminder process in full swing for the 17.1 percent of respondents who said they have upcoming visits scheduled.
43.5 percent of patients who receive regular care have experienced disruptions during the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created some unfortunate challenges for patients who usually receive regular care or take part in regular health check-ins. Seven of 10 respondents said they are in that category, seeing a specialist regularly before the pandemic.
How have they fared during the pandemic? The majority, a combined 59 percent, have experienced delays in care (43.5%) or, far worse, no care at all (15.8%).
There is good news, though. For the most part, care did continue for patients normally following a regular schedule. In addition to those who suffered a temporary disruption, four in 10 patients report their care continuing generally uninterrupted — it’s a safe bet that telehealth played a valuable role here at some point, especially in spring 2020.
When a care disruption causes substantial health issues
As mentioned in the introduction, a recent survey of oncologists reveals some of the more potentially devastating effects of missed or delayed care. In the February 2021 ASTRO national survey, 73 percent of doctors who treat cancer patients said their patient population had missed cancer screenings. Two-thirds said patients are “presenting with more advanced disease than before the pandemic.”
Most-requested information by patients
As a follow-up for patients who said they usually receive regular care or check-ins, we asked about healthcare information they most want to receive from providers. The most-requested option was upcoming appointment availability.
Q: If your healthcare provider contacted you today, what would you want them to share with you?
- Available upcoming appointment times
- Their office’s safety protocols and screenings
- Availability of telehealth appointments
- COVID-19 vaccine information
- General updates about the healthcare practice
- COVID-19 testing information
Recommendation for healthcare practices: These results represent an open invitation to reach out to any established patients and suggest they book an appointment. For those ready to schedule a visit, you’re offering connection and convenience. For those not ready to schedule a visit, you’re promoting your practice and sharing important information. A few tips:
- Deploy an email campaign to invite patients to book an appointment. An email gives you ample real estate to send a welcoming, informative message.
- Give patients a convenient reason to schedule an appointment. Suggest times that usually stay available. Highlight any expanded hours. Promote if you ordinarily see patients outside the standard 8am-5pm on weekdays.
- Invite patients to book immediately online, or to call your practice if they prefer.
Pay attention to the second most-requested content: your safety protocol. Make that your secondary focus within the email, to inform patients and calm any concerns. Keep the details clear and short.
Nearly half of patients worry about unchecked health issues
Whether patients have delayed care due to COVID-19 concerns or the temporary limitations of practices, many patients worry about the potential consequences.
Depending on patients’ experiences and needs, the level of concern is substantially greater.
Patients who receive regular specialty care:
54.7% more likely to worry about unchecked health issues
Patients who canceled or missed an appointment due to COVID-19:
147% more likely to worry about unchecked health issues
Patients who receive regular specialty care AND canceled/missed an appointment:
194% more likely to worry about unchecked health issues
In summary, patients who usually receive regular care and have missed an appointment during the pandemic are almost three times more likely to have concerns about their health.
Recommendation for healthcare practices: We’ve mentioned the value of proactive communication with patients who a) have missed appointments and b) receive regularly scheduled care. But how can you gauge the level of concern across your entire patient base?
You can ask. If your re-engagement strategy includes some phone calls to patients, that’s a great opportunity to hear their concerns. If you send email campaigns to segments of your patient population, there are a few ways to approach this important dialogue:
- Within the email, mention that patient health is your practice’s number one focus. Suggest that anyone concerned with their well-being after the past year reach out to the practice.
- If you have the time and know-how, consider creating a simple online survey, which you can link to from your email (or text message) communication. Within the survey, ask people how they’re feeling about their health, with options such as “I feel good and have been maintaining good health,” “I worry that my health concerns have gone unchecked,” and “I am not sure”. Offer a data field for that patient to add their email address, so you may more easily identify (and then contact) those expressing worry or concern.
More worry: Most patients hesitant about office visits lack COVID-19 safety knowledge
There are a variety of reasons people are hesitant about visiting their healthcare providers. Some are nervous about the conversations that may arise. Others worry about test results, are frustrated by insurance and costs, or have scheduling or health barriers.
When these patients speak up about their concerns, many worries can be managed by well-trained office managers and staff.
Currently, however, one of the major reasons for patient hesitation is a lack of information about practice safety during the pandemic. It’s the concern for nearly half of all patients who express hesitation about going to an in-person visit.
45.5% of patients who are hesitant about an office visit say it’s because they’re not sure how the practice is keeping people safe.
This insight is right in line with our data on which information patients request most. As a best practice, continue to provide your patients with details about how you take steps to ensure the safety of your patients (and staff), how it aligns with local and CDC guidelines, and why it works.
Patients prefer three key methods of communication for upcoming appointments.
With nearly 7 of 10 patients willing to switch doctors for a better experience, knowing patient preferences can be valuable for your patient retention strategy. In the 2020 PatientPop patient perspective survey report, patients chose text messaging as the overwhelming preference for receiving reminders to attend or book an appointment. Text messaging was the choice of 66.8 percent of patients for appointment reminders, and 58.7 percent when needing to book their next appointment.
According to our latest 2021 data, that has changed. Now, text messaging, email, and phone calls are almost equally preferred by patients when receiving appointment-related communications.
Why the shift? We can surmise that more patients may be looking for a little extra personal touch after one year of pandemic concerns and behavior. They would like to be “welcomed back” with a touch of customer service that a phone call can bring.
It’s also important to understand that healthcare practices are not quite back to business as usual yet. Patients have more questions. Some appointments and patients may require more discussion than they might ordinarily.
This also highlights the need for healthcare practices to have all the tools necessary to respond to patient preference — especially as that preference may change with changing healthcare settings or conditions.
Recommendation for healthcare practices: We’ve mentioned the potential value of a friendly phone call for patients who have missed or canceled appointments. The above metrics reinforce that value for rebooking that appointment, or simply re-engaging a patient for upcoming care and visits in the near future.
Equally as important is how efficiently you can reach out to patients with email campaigns and text messaging. Keep in mind that, based on the data above, deploying emails and text messages covers more than 6 out of 10 patients.
In the face of a rapidly evolving pandemic, the drop in patient appointments in March and April 2020 was both unexpected and unavoidable. In roughly four weeks, appointment volume dropped 56 percent.
While recovery took place through the rest of 2020 (with more success for some practices), gaps remain. As illustrated by the above insights, many patients missed appointments, and are worried about what that means to their health.
It’s one year later and the vaccine initiative is in full swing. On April 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 99.6 million Americans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Now is the time to put a patient recall and re-engagement strategy into place, whether a patient has skipped care or simply put off a usual checkup. With the right communication tools and approach, you can bring patients into the rest of 2021, and back to your practice.
PatientPop surveyed 802 patients across the nation March 26, 2021, using the SurveyMonkey Audience program. Respondents were 51.5 percent female and 48.4 percent male, with full-census age balancing across four age segments, ages 18 and older. Margin of error is +/- 3.4 percent.