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Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain: Turning 2020 Lessons Learned into a Competitive Advantage for 2021

Aug 10, 2020 9:23:27 AM

It’s been said: “Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at will change.” The first half of 2020 and our battle against a global pandemic have forced us to re-envision the way we look at daily life – from the way we interact with each other, to the way we run our households, to the way we operate our businesses. This is especially true in the healthcare sector. Most medical practices had to transform the way they engage with patients overnight to comply with state and federal mandates, ensure the safety of their patients and staff and keep their businesses afloat. 

What’s emerged from this period of self-reflection and evaluation is recognition that the “old way” of doing things needed a refresh. Changes forced by short-term circumstances could have a long-term impact that will make medical practices and healthcare stronger and more effective than at any other time in history. Below are five of the most significant 2020 takeaways.

Embrace Technology.

Healthcare is a sector where innovation is constant – for example, new treatments, new equipment and new procedures – with the goal of saving lives. The administrative and patient engagement side, however, has not entirely kept pace. According to the Council for Affordable Quality Healthcare, the healthcare industry wastes more than $9 billion annually by using manual processes versus digital. The same is true even when it comes to managing cash flow: a 2019 survey indicated that 90% of medical practices still use paper and manual processes for patient collections. 

The technology does exist – such as solutions for patient engagement, billing and electronic health records (EHR). However, some practices have been reluctant to embrace it for reasons ranging from cost to training to a higher comfort level with more traditional paper methods. But the emergence of COVID-19 has reinforced the critical role technology plays in practice operations. Technologies like electronic self-check-in and patient engagement solutions help minimize the dependence on in-person interaction while still preserving the 1:1 experience vital to the physician/patient relationship. 

Communication is Key.

It seems so simple, but bolstering communication between practice and patient is essential for a successful relationship. And in times of uncertainty and chaos, communication becomes even more important – wherever that turbulence comes from: a job loss, a difficult diagnosis, a severe winter storm or a global pandemic. Patients may be fearful, uncertain or intimidated and, thus, hesitant to schedule follow-up appointments . Or they may simply be distracted by the noise of daily life and likely to forget an upcoming visit. 

Practices need to use the tools at their disposal to implement a deliberate and aggressive patient communications plan regarding hours of operations, payment options telehealth login steps and safety policies. Then, there are appointment confirmations, reminder notices and follow-up instructions. All of it requires a flexible, yet systematic set of communications. It leverages devices like mobile phones, tablets and desktops and vehicles like texting, email, telephone, web conferencing and even video. These tools facilitate proactive engagement 1:1 with patients at every point in their journey, from scheduling to check-in to post-procedure. 

Patient Engagement Meets Creativity.

Communication is a critical component of patient engagement, but it’s not the only one. Flexibility and enablement also play essential roles in fostering and deepening the client relationship. Traditionally, patient engagement revolved around the in-person appointment: 

  1. Patients would receive a call or card reminding them of their upcoming visit.
  2. Patients would check in with a front-desk staff member, provide their updated profile and insurance information and take a seat in the waiting room until the physician was ready to see them. 
  3. P{atients would stop by reception post-appointment to arrange payment and schedule any follow-up appointments. 

And then the process would start all over again prior to the next visit. 

COVID forced practices everywhere to rethink this model and find new, flexible and on-demand ways to interact with patients from any place, at any time. Practices are turning to technology to create more touchpoints, put more power in the hands of the patient, and provide other options for patients to see their physician outside the office environment. Technologies like patient engagement solutions and electronic self check-in empower practices to embrace digital methods that they can adapt as needed. For example, practically overnight, they can implement virtual waiting rooms where patients check-in and update their information from a mobile device and wait for their appointments from their vehicles, thus minimizing the amount of in-person interaction. And they can restructure all check-in to be self-service, redeploying in-office staff to more value-added patient engagement services like financial counseling and high-touch support for patients that need additional assistance. 

Telehealth is Here to Stay.

It’s been around for years, but COVID propelled it to the mainstream: the telehealth model. Some practices have adopted it in part, while others have adopted it entirely, but all agree telehealth has graduated to become a permanent fixture in a practice’s service offerings. It gives physicians a way to engage with patients in circumstances when an in-person visit isn’t optimal or preferred, making it easier for them to keep their appointments or keep up with their treatments, while giving practices a way to see more patients in a single day. According the American Medical Association (AMA), healthcare professionals are now seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via telehealth than they did pre-COVID. They note that 46% of patients are now using telehealth to replace rescheduled in-person visits, up from just 11% in 2019.

As with anything new, telehealth can take a bit of getting used to, especially for patients who are not entirely comfortable with computers or web conferencing platforms. Practices need to consider this carefully as they roll out telehealth services – alerting patients well in advance that their appointment will be conducted online and providing them with easy-to-follow login instructions or a telephone “hotline” for the first session per patient. They could use patient engagement or electronic self-check-in to detail the process in an email or text upon confirmation of the appointment and later in reminders as the appointment draws closer. Post-visit, practices could use the same technology to administer a survey about the patient’s experience and collect feedback to improve the process going forward. 

From “Just in Time” to “Just in Case.”

In the quest for efficiency, many practices would limit staffing and resources to what was essential in the moment. The idea of redundancy or back-up might have seemed wasteful, whether it meant having an additional person at the front desk during peak traffic or vacation periods, or a back-up supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) “just in case.” Instead, in the spirit of cost savings, practices operated according to a “just in time” model, calling in additional resources only as necessary – which worked well, until those resources weren’t available. 

What COVID forced us to realize is that “just in time” creates significant vulnerabilities. Reinforcements are essential to maintain operations and ensure practices are prepared in the case of unforeseen circumstances. For example, patient engagement and electronic self-check-in can augment front desk personnel who might be on vacation, out sick or busy with other critical office issues – and maintain consistent communications, collect patient data and verify insurance eligibility without disruption, regardless of what’s going on outside the office walls.

We’ll all look back at 2020 as a year of transformation as healthcare practices had to adapt quickly to circumstances out of their control. But those short-term adjustments could have massive, long-term, positive impact as practices re-evaluate their pre-COVID strategies and operations and re-envision a new, more efficient and more flexible future.

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