While the COVID-19 vaccines are giving private healthcare practices hope for a return to normal business, some experts forecast we aren’t likely to get there until the fall of 2021. As the country’s first vaccine doses were distributed, some states (notably Arizona, California, and Rhode Island) experienced a COVID-19 surge. New COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are at an all-time high, with more than 200,000 reported each day and hospitalizations continuing a gradual rise.
Despite these facts, providers are in a much better place than at the start of the pandemic. Healthcare practices have seen an increase in patient volume as most patients express comfort in seeing their doctors in person. Providers have greater access to COVID-19 testing, hospitals have more treatment options, and plans for vaccination distribution continue.
Evolving healthcare business effects of the pandemic
During the first few weeks of the pandemic in the U.S., doctor’s offices were hit hard with significant volume losses. Appointment volumes at the end of March dipped nearly 60 percent below pre-COVID-19 averages.
In the months that followed, though, appointment volumes slowly returned to normal as states enacted re-opening plans, and patients gained confidence in safety protocols. By early fall 2020, numbers had returned to pre-COVID levels across most specialties.
By December, the number of COVID-19 cases had surged in nearly all states, with a 4.5x increase in new cases compared to October. Twenty states responded by closing or restricting certain businesses once again, and enacting stay-at-home orders and/or curfews.
Staying connected with patients in challenging times
We know these surges and closures can affect patients’ perceptions and behaviors — especially if patients are unsure of your practice’s safety procedures. As a private practice, it’s important to understand how you can better address patient concerns and instill confidence.
PatientPop surveyed patients nationwide in early December to determine how the pandemic was impacting their comfort with in-person appointments and experiences with virtual care. The good news: patients are generally comfortable with in-person visits, and continue to appreciate the streamlined digital experience many practices have instituted to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and fall, how can practices maintain a forward-thinking approach to business continuity and growth? Our advice is simple: don’t take your eye off the ball. Regardless of what’s happening in your area, follow these tips to position your practice for growth in times of both crisis and “normalcy.”
1. Maintain continual patient communication
Proactively communicating with your patients can support your 2021 growth strategy — especially during times of COVID-19 surge in your area. Reach out to established patients across multiple channels to support your patient retention. For prospective patients, provide consistent, valuable information online to reassure them you’re a great choice for care, further supporting your patient acquisition strategy.
In our December patient survey, 76.4 percent of patients told us they felt safe visiting their healthcare provider’s office with safety measures in place. To close that gap with any patients feeling hesitant or fearful, communicate regularly and clearly about what your practice is doing to reduce transmission, and keep patients and staff safe. This can bring great comfort to patients during any spike of COVID-19 cases in your area.
In addition, share the latest information about COVID-19 with your patient base. While there’s a wealth of information online, patients want to hear from the personal doctor they know and trust. According to a poll conducted by the Associated Press, 66 percent of Americans trust their healthcare providers as their credible source of information about COVID-19, just behind the 68 percent that listed the CDC.
Therefore, educating patients about COVID-19 is expected from you as a community healthcare leader — it also presents a strategic opportunity to reach out to patients, and strengthen that connection that keeps them coming back.
Finally, communicate regularly about any changes to your practice operations, including modified hours, new telehealth offerings, or COVID-19 testing processes.
2. Think of telehealth as an evergreen strategy
While many practices scrambled to introduce telehealth options during the national shutdown last spring, the use of virtual care shouldn’t be limited to times of crisis. Yes, telehealth is critical when visits are restricted or limited, but it’s also beneficial when practices are fully open. Our data shows that patients are comfortable with the concept and technology behind telehealth, and don’t want to lose that convenience.
In our December study, approximately three-quarters of patients said they are satisfied with their telehealth experience. More than 80 percent are comfortable using telehealth., and roughly the same percentage prefer another telehealth appointment.
This data represents a monumental shift in perception that would have taken years to achieve without the pandemic. Now, it’s time to ensure telehealth remains an integral part of your operational growth strategy.
If you’re unsure how to best use virtual care at your practice on a regular basis, begin by considering the visit types for which telehealth best suits your business and specialty.
3. Ramp up practice marketing activities
Even though managing practice operations during a global pandemic may feel overwhelming, it’s important not to let marketing efforts fall by the wayside. On the contrary, it’s more critical than ever to maintain your focus on brand and practice growth so you continue to thrive when we come out on the other side of COVID-19.
If you’re not sure where to start, think digital first. Since the start of the pandemic, people are spending more time than ever on their mobile devices, providing a great opportunity to connect with prospective patients where they are most — on their phones or tablets. Here are our top tips for keeping your marketing efforts going throughout the pandemic.
- Enhance your web presence to reach new patients and connect with existing patients. Start by making sure your website is mobile-friendly and fully up-to-date. Include any office changes related to the pandemic, new services, new providers — and any information or resources that can help you better connect with your patients.
- Ensure your Google My Business profile been fully optimized, including accurate information about your practice, links to schedule an appointment, and professional photos and/or videos that will engage prospective patients.
- Consider an email marketing campaign to inspire your patients to take a desired action. Whether it’s reminding them to schedule an annual check-up or encouraging them to try new services or offerings, reaching out on a regular basis will keep patients engaged and informed about your practice.For optimal results, segment your patient base to deliver a more personal, customized email message. You can segment by age, health conditions, appointment type, or the date of the patient’s last visit, to ensure the messages they receive are relevant and timely.
- Focus on media relations, a free and easy way to enhance your local reputation. Especially during times of troubling information, reporters are looking for credible experts on a wide range of health topics. By reaching out to local media and letting them know you’re available, you increase your chances of getting on-air coverage that can build credibility, promote your practice, and strengthen your reputation in your community.
4. Streamline and simplify practice management tasks
While independent practices have historically been slow to adopt new technologies, COVID-19 has made it more important than ever to fully embrace the digital era. Aside from the comfort and convenience it brings your patients (think of touchless digital registration and intake), automating certain functions is just good business sense. Manual processes are time-consuming, leave greater room for error, and can burden staff members who are probably already overwhelmed with COVID-19 protocols and needs.
Implementing digital tools across the entire patient journey, including online scheduling, automated appointment reminders, digital fax service, and online payment, streamline operations for you and deliver in-demand conveniences to your patients — during and long after the stresses of the current pandemic.