Few people want to visit their doctors in the midst of a pandemic — the waiting room alone can pose a transmission risk — and officials have urged Americans to avoid health facilities unless it’s an emergency. As the Washington Post writes, “Doctors really, really don’t want to see you in person right now.”
But that doesn’t mean the doctor isn’t in. Non-emergent healthcare functions haven’t shut down in the pandemic — but they have radically evolved practically overnight.
With social distancing and shelter-in-place orders making medical visits a challenge, an increasing number of healthcare providers and patients are turning to telemedicine (also known as telehealth), which enables remote visits via video, telephone, email, app, and patient portals.
The last few months, in fact, have seen virtual visits soar. Another Washington Post article reports that a Massachusetts-based healthcare system saw 1,600 televisits in February; 89,000 in March; and 242,000 in April. Experts expect those numbers only to climb, with Forrester Research projecting that telehealth visits nationally will surge to one billion by the end of 2020. Further, a report by Global Market Insights forecasts that the telemedicine market will be valued at more than $175 billion by 2026.
As the Guardian says, "What a difference a pandemic makes.”
That so many healthcare facilities were able to get up and running with telemedicine so quickly suggests the industry hit on a great way to shine in terms of patient experience. But how do patients themselves feel about virtual medicine?
They love it, one doctor told AARP. Jane Brody, the Personal Health columnist for the New York Times (a position she has held since 1976), is also a new fan. “For patients like me,” she writes, “who won’t return to medical offices that keep me waiting long past my scheduled appointment time, being able to ‘see’ the doctor in my home most often at the prearranged time will be more than enough to encourage a telemedicine visit when feasible.”
Indeed, despite the inevitable glitches that come with a new-to-many technology ramping up almost overnight, the numbers indicate many others feel the same. In addition to the fact that people are increasingly trusting of remote care technology, a survey by Updox, a virtual care and healthcare communication company, found that of the patients who reported liking the experience of using telehealth services, 65% cite convenience as a reason — and 63% point to not having to worry about being exposed to other potentially sick patients.
Clearly telemedicine isn’t a genie that’s likely to return to the bottle. Quite the opposite: a survey found that although just 25% of consumer respondents had used telehealth services prior to the pandemic, 59% reported they are more likely to use them now than previously and 33% would leave their current provider for one offering telehealth access. Additionally, a report finds a 14% reduction in hospital readmissions for cardiac patients enrolled in a telehealth programme, while another study shows that telemedicine patients required less follow-up care than patients who received in-person care only. In fact, Teladoc, the nation’s larger telehealth provider, reports that approximately 95% of the cases it sees are resolved entirely online.
Again, talk about a great patient experience.
Driving awareness – and delivering answers
But here’s the thing: a great patient experience can only happen when patients are actively aware of what your organisation has to offer. As MedCityNews notes, “Even the best telehealth programme is useless if patients are not aware that it exists.”
The same is true of anything your facility provides — or simply wants to communicate. Maybe your centre is now offering abbreviated hours for well visits or to attend to chronic issues. Or perhaps you’re back to seeing patients on-site full time. Maybe you’ve overhauled your layout to limit personal contact or initiated a system whereby potential COVID-19 cases are handled remotely or at another location. Or, if you are one of the many healthcare providers that have launched or expanded telemedicine during the pandemic, you want patients to know about it, as well as how to access it. You’ll also want to explain why it can be a viable alternative to in-person visits and reassure patients that the technology behind their virtual session is secure.
Can people easily find information and answers to all those questions quickly and easily on your website? About your services in general? Is information about your healthcare professionals easily accessible? Can patients contact those professionals directly from the search results? (Hint: it’s particularly important that they’re able to seamlessly click to call or email.) And with all the health recommendations and protocols around COVID-19 regularly changing, is your site equipped to quickly deliver accurate, up-to-date information?
All of this underlines the imperative of controlling how people interact online with your organisation — even before they’ve become patients. A great patient experience depends on your ability to seamlessly deliver answers about your policies, protocols and services whenever people ask. And however they ask, given that people are increasingly asking those questions of their digital assistants, and leaving it to AI to use its natural language processing (NLP) abilities to decipher the intricacies that come with casual speech. But if you can’t provide those answers quickly and easily, you’re going to lose customers — after all, 68% of people say they would not revisit a site that provided a poor search experience.
In the age of COVID, people are asking more questions than ever of healthcare providers. Chances are they’re looking to your website (and your competitors’ websites!) for at least some of those answers. Take a page out of telemedicine’s notebook and make sure you’re ready to respond.