Keeping patient communication strong in a pandemic
Life for everyone has been a little crazy lately and the healthcare industry is no exception. As COVID-19 advanced across the world, practices were left scrambling trying to figure out how to continue providing care to their patients while social distancing and keeping everyone safe. One of the most important aspects of this crisis was to maintain open lines of communication. Patients needed to know if their providers were open and available, what precautions they should be taking, and what health situations were considered an emergency and what could be put off.
In a recent discussion, Debbi Christiansen, marketing director at Arches Foot and Ankle, located in Lehi, Utah shared how they have managed this difficult task during the stressful time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Arches Foot and Ankle is a private podiatry practice with a single doctor and five additional staff members. The limited staff numbers made the task of reaching out to a lot of patients quickly very challenging. As Debbi put it, “Because we are such a small practice we just do not have the manpower to call all our patients.”
For several years, they have used a patient relationship management (PRM) software program called Solutionreach to stay connected with patients. Prior to the pandemic, they generally used it for things such as text and email reminders for appointments and occasionally a newsletter. When things started to get serious with COVID-19 in Utah, Debbi knew she needed to increase the amount of communication that was going out to patients. The use of digital tools and the cloud made a huge difference in her ability to stay in touch with patients and keep life going smoothly at home.
She said, “I work part-time at our office, but since COVID, I have been at home with our five kids helping them mainly with online school. I haven’t been able to work physically at the office, but I have been able to log in each week and find a newsletter to send out to our patients, check on reminder settings, and schedules. I love that I can do this from home. I used to send newsletters quarterly, but since COVID I have been sending them weekly (or bi-weekly) to just communicate with our patients.”
While they were able to remain open during this time, things looked different than what a patient might typically expect. She explained, “Our office has been able to stay open, but we have had to drop a few hours and space out patients. We have had a dip in appointments, but have been picking back up. Because we see a lot of elderly, diabetics, and wound care patients come in for routine visits we have been concerned for them. We have rescheduled and tried to be accommodating. We always wear masks now, have been asking patients to wear masks, and take the temperatures of everyone who comes to appointments.”
All of this new information needed to be communicated to patients. She took advantage of many pre-made newsletter templates covering topics such as ways to stay healthy, instructions for visiting the office, keys to social distancing and more. As Debbi explained, “The templates have been a HUGE lifesaver for us! We love them.”
For healthcare organizations wanting to be like Arches Foot and Ankle and keep the lines of communication open with their patient base, here are a few best practices to keep in mind:
- Given the critical nature of patient communication during COVID-19, try to use patient preferences for communication types. Commonly, text and email are considered to be the best options, but some do prefer a phone call. This is a good time to reach out to patients and ask how best to reach them to ensure they get your updates.
- Communicate regularly. This probably means that you need to reach out more often than you are accustomed to doing. Usually, providers limit newsletters and other informational emails to once a month or even bi-monthly or quarterly. Right now, providers are one of the best sources or accurate information for patients. Communicate every week or two, depending on where you are located and how quickly things are changing. Patients need information about how to get care from you as well as updates on what is happening with shelter-in-place restrictions, orders to wear masks, testing sites, etc.
- To further support a new virtual workflow and social distancing when you do need to see patients in person, look at options to support digital check-in and registration, online scheduling, and electronic payment options. For patients coming to your site, look at using tools like text messaging to support a virtual waiting room where they text on arrival and you text when they come in.
Remember—when it comes to communicating with patients during this time, it is better to overdo it. Patients need to keep up with the latest information and they want their healthcare provider to be the one they can turn to.