5 Ways the Patient Experience Has Changed During the Pandemic
In just a single year, the concept of a typical “patient experience” has shifted dramatically, not only in terms of patient behaviors but also their mindsets. How? Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased patient anxiety regarding the healthcare environment, resulting in delaying care, reduced adherence to medication, a focus on public health issues related to social equity, a greater demand for home health and telehealth options, and an increased focus on personal wellness and prevention.
Because the patient mindset has changed, the healthcare environment must adapt to address associated anxieties. Planning and design strategies can help, including these three guidelines that alleviate patient anxiety:
- Streamline operations: Reduce contact, density and touchpoints along the patient journey
- Communicate: Provide clarity, empower with information and manage expectations
- Move beyond the clinic walls: Extend the patient experience to outdoor and public spaces and integrate digital and physical components
Let’s explore how these three guidelines can be realized in the patient journey.
Pre-Arrival Goes All-In on Digital
Pre-arrival and registration for any healthcare visit is usually characterized by an avalanche of paperwork. While many healthcare providers already offer online or virtual registration, an opportunity exists to standardize the process even more. Pre-COVID-19, some patients simply avoided advanced pre-registration and opted to register in person, which reduced efficiency and increased time in the waiting area. While some patients may need extra accommodation (e.g., over the telephone or in-person), healthcare systems should take this opportunity to transition to an (almost) 100% digital pre-registration process. Healthcare consumers understand the need to reduce interpersonal contact and public waiting in the interest of social distancing practices and may now be more willing to accept virtual pre-registration practices to limit their time in physical healthcare settings. Changing norms and patient behavior is challenging, but the pandemic has retrained us all to think and act in new ways to protect our health and that of others.
For the best digital pre-registration experience, make sure the digital platform or electronic forms integrate with the EHR, are compatible with mobile devices, provide electronic signature functionality and allow image capture for insurance information. It’s also important to consider patient experience across all media and touchpoints. Pre-registration may be the threshold of a healthcare organization’s digital front door. As such, it’s a critical opportunity to set the tone for the entire patient experience across an organization. Continuity in service, quality, and branding from the virtual experience to the physical experience is essential. Managing patient expectations for future on-site visits can be established online or with an app-based approach. Consider clear written and visual instructions to guide the patient pathway and provide the information needed to begin the patient journey.
During the pandemic, virtual triage also became routine. In order to divert patients from healthcare facilities and direct them to appropriate venues or self-care options, healthcare systems initiated remote triage to control patient flow and access and manage facility capacity and patient cohorts.
Set Patient Expectations for Arrival Experience
Just as healthcare systems used virtual health pre-screening to manage patient flow, arrival at a physical site of care is the next step in the patient journey. Good signage and intuitive wayfinding are always important for healthcare facilities, but they’re even more important today. Because of the pandemic, organizations have limited their points of entry and are limiting access to entry. When patients arrive, they need to clearly understand where to go, which door they use to enter and which pathway to follow. This is the point where pre-arrival instructions and registration really pay off.
Navigating the facility independently or with virtual assistance both empowers patients and provides adequate social distancing. Unfortunately, reducing touchpoints also means reducing points of interaction with personnel who humanize healthcare, provide reassurance and a warm welcome.
Some health systems have produced videos that prepare patients for every step they will encounter on their visit and app-based greetings and instructions for patients to follow. Another creative and playful solution some providers have employed include the use of an escort robot. While these robots don’t exactly offer a human touch, they do provide a sense of novelty and whimsy that may ease some of the anxiety patients may feel accessing healthcare.
Use the Patient Visit to Build Trust
One of the biggest challenges during the pandemic has been managing communication and providing patients with consistent, accurate messaging. Patients often don’t know who to trust. Many healthcare systems have used their own websites to bust myths surrounding COVID-19 and the vaccination effort. While some may be suspicious of information they’re getting from standard sources, many still place their trust in their healthcare providers. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll conducted in the midst of the pandemic found that 66% polled said they trust their healthcare provider on virus data.
The patient visit, whether in-person or virtual, provides an opportunity for providers to communicate one on one with patients. Building rapport and empathy in these moments may reduce patient anxiety and increase their level of understanding. Meaningful interactions not only boost confidence in the healthcare system in general, but also may build loyalty to specific healthcare systems. Additionally, these interactions may help a provider identify patients who, although they’re being seen for some other condition, may be at risk for COVID-19 or mental health issues precipitated by the stress of the pandemic event.
The way in which the organization handles patient flow and provides a conspicuous level of cleanliness, adherence to safety and respect for patient’s welfare during a visit also helps to instill confidence and trust.
When Patients are Recovering Alone, Provide Connection Opportunities and Autonomy
One of the worst situations created by social distancing and quarantining protocols is that patients are now forced to take their patient journey alone, without the support and physical presence of family and friends. By creating the opportunity for remote family engagement, patients may be able to reach out for support and psychological comfort. During and post-COVID-19, healthcare organizations should consider alternate, broader ways of providing patient-centered care.
Outfitting patient rooms or areas with personal environmental control, like remotes for television, lighting and blinds, empowers the patient to make the space comfortable for themselves and reduces the number of times staff need to enter the patient room for non-clinical interactions.
Discharge: Reduce Touchpoints and Stay Connected
All organizations should have smooth and efficient discharge procedures for the sake of efficiency and patient satisfaction. This is even more important now. No one wants to stay in the healthcare facility a minute longer than they must. Having clear discharge instruction and education is crucial for patient self-care and for linking back to the healthcare system.
Discharge in the patient room or exam room reduces touchpoints, gatherings at a centralized checkout desk (usually in ambulatory settings), and is another opportunity for meaningful patient education. Additionally, in-room check out and discharge helps ensures patient privacy.
Follow-up is yet another critically important aspect to care delivery. Patients often let questions go unasked, leading to lack of adherence to follow-up instructions or missed visits. Connecting with patients directly through phone calls can provide a personal touch, but also requires personnel. Connecting with patients via email or text message can be a fast and efficient way of reaching out and identifying those patients who may need more personalized follow-up care.