Hospitals and health systems will be grappling with the effects of the global COVID-19 health crisis for a long time to come.
As hospital operations continue to evaluate the impact the pandemic has had on the overall healthcare environment so far, administrators and clinicians need to:
- Evaluate the effect of COVID-19 on their patient interactions
- Identify what trends or lessons are emerging during the crisis that could help improve patient experience and patient satisfaction
- Realize long-term impact of the pandemic that will need to factor into patient approaches moving forward
The purpose of this post is to help hospital leadership focus on lessons learned thus far in improving overall patient experience.
Influence of COVID-19 on Patient Interactions
A combination of fear, misinformation, process changes, restricted visitation, and many other factors certainly impacted the way patients perceived healthcare throughout the pandemic.
One major challenge for the healthcare system at large has been explaining to communities the importance of not avoiding emergent or urgent care even during pandemics. It’s possible that if the industry had proactively addressed the angle of the “shelter in place" narrative as it relates to medical care, EDs and urgent care may not have seen such concerning declines in visit volume for serious chronic and emergent needs.
While patient comments about COVID-19-specific tests and treatments were seemingly more negative from January through March, many patients still report satisfaction with acute care facilities and hospitals regarding the way they tried to handle this pandemic.
Poll data from the Beryl Institute shows that while hospital visits are down, patient satisfaction with overall care quality is up by 13 percent, and satisfaction with their own care experiences improved by seven percent.
That indicates the virus seems to have attuned communities to the challenges faced by the healthcare industry and the bravery and dedication of healthcare workers.
It was not unusual for staff to hear comments such as, "The staff made arrangements all the way from specific parking to meeting me outside for PPE and promptly had me in a room," or the "staff was polite, professional, kind, helpful, and took extra sanitary measures in light of COVID-19."
Trends/Lessons from COVID-19
In a webinar addressing the effects of COVID-19 on healthcare, Lisa Fry, SCP Health’s Chief Growth Officer, said that pre-pandemic, patient satisfaction was based on factors like a patient's previous experience with the hospital, marque service lines and specialties, or recommendations from family and friends.
That’s all changed with the pandemic, she said, as patients' attention shifts to things like:
- Safety measures the hospital is implementing for both patients and staff
- Offering of telehealth options, such as remote triage and virtual visits
- How active the hospital is in guiding its community through this virus as a trusted source of information and care
In fact, many of ways patient encounters have been carried out during the pandemic should continue to be replicated moving forward. We can learn a lot from the incredible, above-and-beyond service that many healthcare workers have delivered during this crisis, such as:
- Attending to high-risk populations and helping them access necessary in-person care safely;
- Explaining plainly and compassionately the situation, symptoms, and treatment to patients, taking the time to calm fears and provide quality care even in brief interactions;
- Making every effort to stay connected with patients and communities at all times via online education, telehealth visits, social media, nurse information lines, and other forms of communication;
- Taking a proactive approach to being part of the community as a source of expertise, knowledge, and accurate information;
- Doing our best to stay in touch with patients' loved ones, providing opportunities for updates and virtual communication between the two. (According to the Beryl Institute, communication with patients and families increased six percent in importance from December 2019 to March 2020.)
Long-Term Effects to Factor In
In the wake of the epidemic, we need to be highly aware of attending to the long-term effects on community health. That includes understanding:
- The reality that ICU stays and isolation during COVID treatment may last a while. It is essential to have a system in place for following up on those patients and ensuring they connect to the recovery resources they need (both physical and psychological).
- The impact of social isolation—even for those not infected. From domestic abuse, to resurfaced suicidal thought triggers, to stress-induced extreme weight gain or loss—or any other number of things—many aspects of health are endangered in these isolated situations. It's important to recognize and be proactive in addressing those concerns and conditions.
- The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color. The NAACP outlines ten ways that COVID-19 particularly affected these groups. This information is critical for hospitals and health systems working to address social determinants of health more broadly and ensure fair, comprehensive care for all populations.
As we refocus on patient experience in what we hope will soon be a post-pandemic environment, we must work to regain—then sustain—patient trust and loyalty. It is imperative that health systems and their clinicians are committed to improving access and delivering quality care for the communities they serve.