At a point late in April 2020, 42 U.S. states had stay-at-home orders in place, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The spread of the novel coronavirus, and the subsequent state safety regulations, have affected just about everything — which doesn’t seem like an understatement.
The pressures on the healthcare system have been immense. Of course, there’s the stress and strain of the virus itself — and the need to test and care for patients — but also the weighty challenges caused by the requirements of isolation.
Although patients are strongly encouraged to stay home, they still need to be cared for by their local healthcare providers. Private practices still need to operate in their communities. The use of telehealth services has quickly become the relief valve, empowering practices to continue delivering care and even find new patients.
Change has always been a constant in the U.S. healthcare industry, but rarely at this speed and frequency. With many states revising safety requirements in May 2020 (“re-opening,” as it’s described), healthcare practices must be as prepared and flexible as ever. Those who can perform well at different stages of the challenge can best serve their patients and see resulting revenue; the smartest will also hone their acquisition strategy to flourish in the months and years to come.
Stage 1: Practice survival
In an April 10-13 survey of primary care practices, only 46 percent of respondents said they had enough patient volume to stay open for another four weeks. This is when practice strategy goes into survival mode.
If this is currently the condition at your practice, implementing a telehealth service is the most immediate measure to keep your head above water and get in front of patients more regularly.
If you need to do this quickly, you can. With HIPAA requirements loosened and many regulations waived, you can use a non-compliant, non-healthcare video platform just to see patients in a virtual setting. If you and a patient both have FaceTime or Skype, for instance, you can get started.
Keep the following in mind:
None of your current patients will know they can see you via telehealth unless you tell them. Start by contacting those who have upcoming appointments (or reconnect with those who recently missed appointments), send an email to your wider patient base, communicate via your social media channels, and update your website. There are more comprehensive communication strategies you could deploy, but now’s the time to act quickly.
In addition to your website, adjust your Google My Business profile to announce that you’re currently accepting telehealth visits. This will help you begin to lay the groundwork for attracting new patients online.
Of course, you’ll need to document your virtual visits. Some providers prefer to keep their EHR close by and alternate between looking at the patient and adding to the EHR workflow. (Just let the patient know what you’re doing so they don’t think you’re losing focus on them.)
Make sure you’re meeting billing requirements for telehealth visits. During the national health emergency, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and many private payers are treating — and reimbursing — virtual visits as they would in-person visits. PatientPop has published a helpful reimbursement guide for your reference. In addition, always contact your payers and state associations to confirm regulations and requirements.
Stage 2: Practice stability
As your practice gains firmer footing in this new environment, you can use all the technical tools in your arsenal to establish greater business stability.
Continue using telehealth in ways you already have (especially if rule waivers are still in place), and enjoy one new, notable advantage: both you and your patients will have experienced the convenience of virtual care and are likely to favor it. Now that it’s become an established component of care delivery, take time to create a telehealth strategy at your practice:
- Use virtual care to expand your hours without having to keep the office open
- Think of telehealth as an excellent triage tool: assess whether patients need an in-person visit, and divert them from expensive, unnecessary care settings
- Determine the types of patient visits for which telehealth is best for your practice: follow-up appointments, ongoing care management, instances of high no-show rates, and others relevant for you
It’s also important as ever to communicate with patients. Do they know if they can book a virtual appointment online? Or if they can enter payment information for secure payments to your practice?
If they’re coming to an in-person visit, should they wait in their car instead of the waiting room? What protocols are in place to keep everyone safe — including your providers?
As your procedures change, share updated information with your patients via email, and reinforce them in appointment reminders and text messages, when applicable.
Through this combination of virtual appointment offerings and transparent communication, you’ll continue to instill trust in your patients while meeting their demand. That’s a surefire way to gain positive reviews and build up your online reputation.
Stage 3: Ongoing practice success
It’s widely understood that, with time, your healthcare practice will continue to “open up” — accepting a greater volume of in-office visits, and being more accustomed to new safety procedures and a new workflow.
This is the point at which your practice can flourish in your market:
- Telehealth continues to play a role, driving efficiencies for you and high levels of patient satisfaction
- A higher percentage of happy patients translates into a greater opportunity at a standout online reputation
- Online and branding presence you’ve established ahead of local competition during the first two stages now pays dividends
Now’s the time to continue expanding your web presence as well: build out your blog, give additional visibility to telehealth on your website, and budget for Google ad buys to ensure you’re at the top of results for services your prospective patients search for.
It’s important to note that the video-only tool you may have chosen for virtual care during a time of survival may become increasingly frustrating, as well as non-HIPAA-compliant. When considering the right telehealth platform for your practice, think beyond immediate needs. The shift to telehealth as a major care component is here now, and is here to stay.
For optimal long-term practice benefits, your telehealth service should be integrated into your overall practice strategy. Look ahead now to identify telehealth services that make the most of patient experience technologies such as digital intake forms, online scheduling, appointment reminders, secure online payment, and patient satisfaction surveys.
The choices you make now can keep you performing well during a time of unparalleled challenges, and achieving all-new growth as the situation — and the entire industry — continue to evolve.