Are you prepared to reach out to your patients at a moment’s notice when there’s an emergency closure or schedule change? Whether it’s natural disasters, inclement weather or a global viral pandemic, the past 18 months have reminded us that any number of events can interrupt provider schedules and operations.
Often, the disturbance is something much less dramatic, like a physician is out sick or there’s been a particularly heavy rainstorm that’s impacted travel. But whatever the scenario may be, healthcare organizations need to prepare in advance for contingencies that might lead to emergency closings or schedule changes. The last thing you want to have happen is to have patients showing up for appointments during a schedule-altering event only to find out the office is closed or the provider is out.
Phone calls are obviously impractical during such events since staff don’t have the time to contact patients individually. Best practices for contacting patients in these situations include using text messages and email to rapidly connect with patients and alert them to changes to their appointment schedule. Better yet, a digital patient engagement platform with group texting capabilities allows providers to simultaneously reach either specific groups of patients or all patients simultaneously via text or email. When an emergency strikes, you’ll appreciate the considerable time savings group texting affords when needing to alert patient of a last-minute schedule change.
If you don’t have one already, we recommend creating and implementing a Patient Contact Plan for Emergency Events so that you and office staff know exactly what to do when the unexpected happens. The following are five steps to set up an emergency contact plan that will help your team be better prepared to reach patients when seconds count.
- Designate a Decision-Maker
Any time your local area experiences an event or circumstance that, for example, makes travel difficult or results in school or business closures, you should carefully consider if you should adjust your schedule. You may choose to close the practice completely, open later than usual, or extend hours based on the type and severity of the event.
Before an event takes place, practice management should designate who specifically will make that decision. It may depend on your practice type and size and/or the type of emergency. For enterprise-level providers, a weather-related closure or change in operating hours will generally be made by an executive at corporate headquarters. With smaller, independent practices, the owner/practitioner will typically be the one to make that decision.
- Evaluate the Situation and Make the Call
After a decision-maker has been identified, the next step is to ensure the decision-maker is kept current about developing potential events or disruptions. Practice management needs to carefully monitor news and other information that will help the decision-maker select a course of action. This might include things like relevant news reports, National Weather Service advisories, school closing updates, and emergency notifications from state, county, and local government authorities.
Oftentimes, the practice may only have access to limited information, and the ultimate decision will often come down to a judgment call by the decision-maker. Consider the following questions when weighing whether action is needed:
- Is the decision-maker incapacitated due to illness? If the decision-maker is also the practitioner, and they unexpectedly become ill, the decision-making in these events may fall upon practice management.
- Are roads in your area closed or difficult to maneuver on? If a weather-related event makes it difficult or dangerous to drive, consider temporarily closing the practice until safer travel conditions exist. If road conditions improve as the day progresses, consider making some adjustments to your schedule and reopening later in the day.
- Does your facility still have power? Some storms and events can knock out electricity for days. If you do not have a backup generator and your power is out, you will most likely need to close. Purchasing such a generator is always a good idea.
- Are there other concerns patients may have which could prevent them from feeling comfortable or safe at the practice? Anything from viral outbreaks to tense public demonstrations can cause patients to be uneasy. In these situations, it may be best to temporarily close the practice until safety or calm has been restored.
- Keep Employees Up to Speed
When deciding whether to adjust the practice’s operating hours, it’s important to keep practice staff well informed of any course of action, including the reasoning behind the decision and how long interruptions to the schedule and operations might last. Inform staff members as soon as possible of any changes so they can help you prepare. For example, this could mean letting staff know a few days before an anticipated weather event or reaching out to them first thing in the morning on the day of an unexpected event.
Whatever the situation, we recommend maintaining updated contact information for everyone on your team and having a quick way to contact everyone simultaneously, such as creating a group text that includes all practice employees.
- Notify Your Patients
Of course, patients need to know what your practice has planned when a practice closure or reduced operating hours might be deemed necessary. It's always a good idea to reach out to patients using more than one communication method. We recommend using group messaging to share short alerts via texts and email either to select groups of patients or even your entire patient base, as appropriate.
Having a Patient Contact Plan for Emergency Events in place will help ensure you and your team are well-prepared to respond to any contingency with greater confidence and less stress. These recommendations will help you create policies and processes to clearly and effectively communicate with patients and staff, which will minimize frustration and confusion during unexpected events.
To learn more about how a text-first approach and more updated appointment workflow can help you more effectively reach patients at any point during the care journey, check out the guide, “The Perfect Appointment Workflow: A Path to Improved Outcomes and Increased Revenue.”