The trifecta of increasing consumerism, staff burnout, and deferred care is a fundamental and new challenge that every healthcare provider in the country must overcome. The solution needs to start at the very start of the care journey when patients are still formulating an opinion of their provider and the care they are likely to receive.
By Jeff Fuller, MS, FACHE
As the saying goes, “You can’t make a second first impression.” And in no industry does a first impression carry quite as much weight as in healthcare.
Healthcare providers are making a big ask of their patients—they’re asking patients to trust them to manage their most precious resource: their health. So the first touch carries ramifications far beyond that interaction—it affects how patients view the healthcare system and how likely they are to stay loyal or search elsewhere for more personalized care.
Furthermore, it also colors the perception of the quality of the actual care patients receive. One clinical study showed that patients with a good first impression of their provider had much more positive judgments on their communication approach, while a negative first impression was more likely to inhibit future interactions.
We’re operating in a new environment for healthcare providers—one in which the consequences of a bad first impression are more dire, and the rewards for front-loading seamless and personalized patient experience are greater, both immediately and long-term.
The efficacy of a first touch, whether through a web page, voice call, text message, or in-person interaction, can build or degrade affinity and loyalty in an instant. That means that providers have a new mandate: to create the best possible “digital front door” through pre-care engagement to ensure that first touches are purposeful, meaningful, and contextually appropriate.
First, let’s take a look at some of the new and emerging factors making initial impressions in healthcare more important:
Rising industry consumerism
Even before the pandemic, individuals were taking greater control over their own health benefits and healthcare decisions, prompting the healthcare C-suite to put a greater emphasis on patient engagement. The pandemic kicked the trend into high gear, with an explosion in the modes of healthcare delivery and breakdown of geographical barriers to care. Furthermore, we’ve seen an increasing “appification” of healthcare delivery—that is, a healthcare industry replication of the ease and seamlessness patients experience interacting with brands through consumer-grade apps and interfaces in other industries.
An abundance of choices and an industry hyperfocused on experience means that a patient, when faced with a subpar first touch with a healthcare provider, has more agency and confidence now to switch gears and find a provider that truly fits their lifestyle and preferences.
The lasting effects of deferred care
During the pandemic, hospital admissions for non-Covid-related conditions dropped dramatically, even though the actual volume of occurrence for those conditions—like appendicitis, for example—was unlikely to have changed. As patients missed appointments for fear of contracting Covid-19 in a hospital or doctor’s office, new and existing health conditions had the opportunity to develop and worsen.
Although some patients have deemed it safe enough to return to healthcare providers for screening and other elective procedures, two-plus-years of inertia from countless other patients needs to be overcome. We’re already seeing hospital capacities becoming strained from non-Covid cases, many due to preventable conditions that have grown worse through a lapse in care. To prevent a problem from surging into a crisis, providers need to tap into pre-care outreach practices to build engaged and trusting relationships with patients.
For just about everyone in the medical profession, the last two years have been the most challenging in memory. At the height of the pandemic, over a third of nurses were determined to be emotionally exhausted, and medical professionals have left the industry in droves, resulting in a historic staff shortage for hospitals across the country. Early this year, a full 22% of hospitals reported critical staff shortages.
That leaves fewer resources for patient intake and pre-care outreach, often leading to lapses in experience for patients.
So, to recap: health care systems that are grappling with unprecedented staff shortages must counteract a growing public health crisis due to deferred care—and at the same time meet radically changed customer expectations in order to stay relevant and competitive. It’s a tall order by any stretch.
Solving the first touch problem through technology
Tall order or not, it’s clear that the early stages of the patient journey are among the most important when it comes to building affinity and loyalty. To meet that need, leading hospitals are tapping into the power of effective pre-care engagement to make first touches as automated, personalized, and intelligent as possible. What’s more, by using seamless, multichannel approaches that not only meet patients where they are but collect and digest conversational data, providers are able to optimize touchpoints at all later stages of the care continuum.
So what does effective pre-care engagement look like? At a minimum, it should include these core elements:
- Appointment confirmation and reminders: Automated messages at pre-set times before appointments and at the time of scheduling ensure that patients are aware of their appointments and are easily able to import them onto their calendar of choice. These messages should also prompt patients to confirm, reschedule, or cancel a few days ahead of their appointments to reduce no-shows.
- Appointment scheduling: Allowing patients to self-serve when it comes to appointment scheduling—either through a text or web link—empowers patients to take control over their schedule on their own terms and at their own leisure, while further reducing no-shows.
- Pre-care screening and data intake: Delivering screening surveys and patient forms to fill out and import into systems of record ahead of appointments can reduce time at check-in.
- Conversational functionality: Conversational engagement through chat functionality on a variety of channels can add new levels of personalization to initial interactions.
- Appointment and procedure prep: Telling patients what they can expect when they can arrive, if there are any special safety protocols in place, and whether they need to take any specific preparations ahead of an appointment not only reduces time at check-in, but makes patients feel more prepared and comfortable.
The long-lasting effects of a good impression
The trifecta of increasing consumerism, staff burnout, and deferred care is a fundamental and new challenge that every healthcare provider in the country must overcome. The tools and solutions used to address the issues, meanwhile need to address them across the care continuum. But the solution needs to start at the very start of the care journey, when a patient is still formulating their opinion of their provider and the care they are likely to receive.
That’s why pre-care engagement, in its true essence, is so much more than the sum of its parts. It not only sets the tone for patient experience, it also serves as a valuable first opening to get to know a patient; to glean insights from conversational data to personalize and enhance every single interaction that comes after it.
This article first appeared in MedCityNews on August 9, 2022.