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Best Practices for COVID-19 Patient Communications

 

Effective Communication Can Help Reduce Fear and Panic

The spread of COVID-19 is unprecedented in modern times.It’s scary, especially for those at high risk or who care for someone who is high risk. As a healthcare organization,you have a responsibility to keep patients up-to-date on ways to protect their health. You are one of the best sources for reliable information to help people stay informed and reduce fear and panic. You can do that with effective communication sent through the methods they prefer. There are several ways you can use technology to connect with patients to share information and address questions and concerns.

Create groups and send messages via text and/or email.

You can add patients to a group based on appointment information, then send that group a brief email and/or text message. Consider using this tool to:

  • Reach out to patients to cancel and reschedule elective procedures and other non-essential appointments. Most providers across specialties are cancelling routine and non-essential appointments. It can be helpful to send messages alerting patients to these changes while also turning off any reminders. If you have two-way text messaging, you can ask patients to respond and confirm they have received the message. You may also consider directing them to an online scheduling option to reschedule for a later date or offering a new date through text once they respond. Also, see additional recommendations for high-risk patients at the end of this guide.
  • Communicate changes in hours or services. Some offices are closing entirely while others are open for limited hours or emergencies only. You can send the change in hours to just those patients with upcoming appointments or to all patients.
  • Provide additional information for patients who are coming in for needed care. The fact is there are patients who must be seen and emergencies do happen. But you’ll need to prescreen patients. You can send patients who will be seen additional information. For example, “If you are experiencing coronavirus symptoms such as a cough, fever, or shortness of breath, please contact our office before your appointment.”

Send informational email(s) to all patients.

You can also create a group that includes all of your patients. This can be used to send out general communications to all patients about COVID-19. Use information available from the CDC to help patients understand what COVID-19 is, the signs and symptoms to look for, when to be tested, and how to prevent the spread. This tool is also a good way to communicate about things like drive-through testing sites and other local resources. See examples below.

Create and change COVID-19 pre-visit instructions.

Special pre-visit instructions can be included in patient appointment reminders. You can create and then enable pre-visit instructions with messaging like, “If you are experiencing coronavirus symptoms such as a cough, fever, or shortness of breath, please contact our office before your appointment.” If you’re already using pre-visit instructions, you can simply edit the existing instructions to include this type of information.

Use two-way text messaging to connect with patients

Patients have questions and concerns. Text is faster and easier than email. There are several ways to use two-way text during this crisis:

  • Texting is a much faster way to respond to patient questions. Answers can be quickly sent out by staff members—even if they are busy with other things. It only takes a few seconds to shoot off a text message to a patient compared to several minutes to call them. Send out a message to patients with the number to text so they can use that option instead of calling. You can also remind patients on your voicemail or hold music that they can text questions.
  • Two-way text can also be used to reach out to patients before and after appointments to ask screening questions (i.e., do you have a fever) or follow up on patients who have tested positive to monitor their condition.
  • Use text to extend your waiting room when patients do come in. Ask patients to text when they arrive and then ask them to wait in their car until they are ready to be seen. Then, text them to come in when it is time to get to the exam room. This supports social distancing and reduces time spent in the waiting room where germs can be spread.

Add pre-visit screening form to digital-intake.

Many organizations are asking patients not to come in for routine care, but there are still patients who need to be seen whether that is for COVID-19 screening and care or other emergent issues. These patients should be screened ahead of time to determine if additional precautions are needed. A form can be added to a digital intake packet of forms with basic questions:

  • Do you have a fever?
  • Do you have a cough?
  • Have you traveled outside the U.S. or to an area such as New York, California, or Washington in the last two weeks?
  • Have you been exposed to anyone who tested positive for COVID-19?
  • Have you been exposed to anyone who traveled outside the U.S. or to an area such as New York, California, or Washington in the last two weeks?

Make an extra effort for high-risk patients.

For many patients with complex chronic conditions, stress, anxiety, and lack of sleep can increase symptoms and even cause other corollary illnesses to crop up. Information is a key tool in reducing that stress and anxiety. Healthcare organizations should be making an extra effort to support those patients to keep them healthy. Here are some additional recommendations for how to support high-risk patients:

  • As you look at cancelling non-essential appointments, reach out to patients with chronic conditions differently. Many wait on necessary things until their scheduled visits every three or six months. They may be having new symptoms, pain, or other issues. In other words, they may be scheduled for a routine appointment but have critical needs. Email, text, or call to discuss the best approach for their upcoming appointments.
  • For patients who do still need a visit, offer telemedicine as an option. As most have already heard, CMS and the OCR are easing restrictions on telemedicine use. It is ideal for this purpose. Chronically ill patients can get the care they need without the risk of an in-office visit. Check with other payers on telemedicine coverage. If the payer won’t cover the visit, verify with the patient if they want to schedule and self-pay.
  • Communicate with high-risk patients regularly about COVID-19 to provide updates and recommendations. Depending on the communication tools you have at your disposal you may be able to identify specific risk groups based on different factors. If you are a specialist serving largely high-risk patients you may want to communicate with all patients weekly or bi-weekly. There are resources and information from the CDC on highrisk patients you can leverage for these communications or look to your specialty medical association for additional guidance.
  • Get personal. It’s great to send information to patients that is scientific and fact based about how to mitigate their risk and manage their health in the coming weeks and months, but as I mentioned before stress and anxiety can affect that health. Consider more personal check-ins with these patients, especially those who are truly isolated with little support. One way to identify more at risk patients is through a survey. Consider asking if they live alone, have family support, have a way to get their medications, access to a grocery service, etc. This can help your office identify patients who may need to be checked on.
  • Check in on those high risk patients with a simple email, text, or call to make sure they are doing ok. Provide those patients with additional information about community support services being offered to help the most at risk.

Crisis can be a catalyst for change, and we are seeing that with patient communication and COVID-19. The industry is finding new ways to engage with patients, and many of these may become the norm as we move forward.