Will Your Patients Return? New Research Helps Answer that Question

Understanding patient attitudes can drive effective communications from physician practices. 

Patients are returning to doctors’ offices as states ease COVID-19 restrictions, but visits haven’t completely rebounded and some patients are more likely than others to return, according to several new surveys.

Data published by The Commonwealth Fund finds that visits to ambulatory practices are up from their nearly 60% decline in early April. However, the number of visits is still about one-third lower than they were pre-pandemic.  

That data also showed that although all specialties are rebounding, they’re not doing so at the same rate. For instance, the relative decline in visits remains largest among surgical and procedural specialties and pediatrics.

For providers eager to resume patient care, understanding patient attitudes and trends and taking appropriate action will be important factors in how they communicate with patients who might be hesitant to return. 

The findings: Skipping care due to fear of COVID-19 exposure is common.

Even with many healthcare providers resuming normal operations, fear of being exposed to COVID-19 is prompting patients to stay home. Kaiser Family Foundation data shows that many patients have been skipping or postponing care for months and some will continue to do so.

It found that 48% of Americans say ​they or someone in their household has skipped or delayed getting some type of medical care due to the pandemic. Women were more likely to skip care than men.

Among those who say they or a family member skipped care, 68% say they expect to get the care within the next three months.

The actions: Understand the safety measures patients expect and communicate your plans for implementing them. 

Respondents to a Vanderbilt University Medical Center survey outlined which factors were most important for making them feel safe about coming to hospitals and clinics again.

Among them were:

  • Following proper infection control measures (75%)
  • Taking precautions in waiting areas (74%)
  • Screening doctors and staff for COVID-19 symptoms (68%)
  • Providing masks for patients (64%)
  • Screening patients and visitors for symptoms (61%)

Vanderbilt University Medical Center says it has used these findings to inform online FAQs, email communications, social media posts, and in-person signage within its facilities, among other forms of patient communication.

The findings: Some patients are hesitant to resume care they may consider “elective,” such as colonoscopies.

The Vanderbilt University Medical Center data shows that 66% said they will seek care “normally” within four weeks of stay-at-home orders relaxing. 

However, patients distinguished between seeking care for serious conditions and what they considered “elective” care. 

Whereas 93% said they would seek care within four weeks for serious conditions, just 37% of patients said they would seek care for “elective” screenings such as colonoscopy.

Yet patients aren’t only skipping elective or routine procedures. For example, Kaiser Permanente reported in The New England Journal of Medicine that its heart attack admissions were down 48%.

The actions: Share with patients that “elective” doesn’t mean “optional,” using the channel that most resonates with each demographic.

The word “elective” can be misleading, since it suggests that such these procedures are optional, when in reality procedures like colonoscopies are critical parts of healthcare. In fact, the Kaiser Family Foundation survey showed that 11% of respondents say that their condition or a family member’s condition worsened due to COVID-19-related missed care.  

Providers should communicate this information clearly to patients using the channel that most resonates with each demographic. For instance, Baby Boomers—a key colonoscopy demographic—are tech savvy, and a majority of them are on Facebook. However, they are more likely than younger generations to access the internet on a laptop, rather than a smartphone, according to the DMN3 Institute

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