New research highlights the need for hospitals and health systems to strengthen human and digital patient communication
Stericycle Communication Solutions has announced the results of its U.S. Consumer Trends in Patient Engagement Survey, conducted at a pivotal moment in time when consumers across the country were faced with unprecedented challenges related to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Facilitated by Knowledge Executive, the purpose of the survey was to gain an understanding of current U.S. healthcare consumer behaviors and attitudes regarding their patient experience during the pandemic.
The survey examined provider communications, missed appointments, virtual and in-person visits, and mental health during the pandemic. Findings reinforce the need for health systems to effectively re-establish communication with patients in order to rebuild trust and help patients adapt and succeed with both digital and in-person experiences. Findings were based on an online- and telephone-based survey of more than 500 consumers across all 50 states that was representative of various household incomes, marital statuses, geographies and ages.
“The findings of our inaugural survey are indicative of a notable shift in patient behavior and expectations around provider communication, insights more important than ever during this critical time of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout,” said Matt Dickson, vice president of product and strategy and general manager of Stericycle Communication Solutions. “Re-establishing communication with patients needs to be a primary focus of hospitals and health systems to get patients back on track with their care and reconnected to their providers.”
Key report findings show that:
Provider communication missed the mark
The pandemic exposed and magnified existing weaknesses in patient communication and scheduling. When the pandemic hit in the U.S., the combination of lockdowns and fear of the virus set off massive cancellations of in-person medical services and the postponement of elective surgeries. Roughly half (51%) of patients in the survey report being contacted “fairly quickly” about rescheduling their cancelled appointments. However, for more than one-quarter (27%), it “took a while” for their healthcare providers to contact them to reschedule. Another 8% of respondents were still waiting to hear from their providers months after their existing appointments were cancelled.
Of patients that rescheduled their cancelled appointments, more than half (56%) were prompted by a phone call. Almost one quarter (22%) received no prompt at all but rescheduled on their own. Text message (15%), letter (5%) and email (2%) rounded out the other channels providers used to contact their patients to reschedule cancelled appointments. Conversely, the survey showed that patients’ preferred channels of communication were email (37%), phone call (30%), text message (28%) and video call (5%), with 57% of respondents reporting that multiple reminders help them keep their appointments and avoid cancellations.
When asked whether their providers effectively communicated their COVID-19 policies and procedures prior to attending scheduled appointments, 37% of respondents said “no.” Of those who had received prior instructions, the primary channel was by phone call (35%), followed by email (27%), text message (24%) and pamphlet via mail (9%). Only 5% received multichannel communication — representing an opportunity for providers to broaden their communication strategies to more effectively reach patients in their preferred channel.
Patient satisfaction declined during the pandemic
Poor provider communications contributed to health systems experiencing a 13% percentage point drop in patient satisfaction during the pandemic, with 60% of respondents reporting being “very satisfied” compared to 73% pre-pandemic. Respondents also cited a general lack of provider responsiveness to communications from patients. The disappointment doesn’t end with provider communications. More than half of the respondents (54%) felt rushed during their medical appointments, an increase of 35% percentage points compared to pre-COVID experiences.
Another potential area of concern is whether health systems are losing patients because they can’t provide appointments when patients want and need them. Most respondents (82%) are willing to wait up to seven days for non-emergency appointments before they look elsewhere for medical assistance. Anything longer than seven days and health systems risk losing patients to more responsive and available providers.
Preference for telehealth and virtual waiting rooms likely to give rise to hybrid care options
While 29% of respondents said they did not utilize telemedicine services at all prior to the pandemic, the number of virtual visits grew during the COVID-19 outbreak, with 36% saying they’ve accessed care via telemedicine or virtual channels three to four times since COVID-19 began and 31% using it one to two times. Primary care (19%), mental health (17%) and dermatology (17%) were the preferred type of medical appointment to use for telehealth services. The data indicates that consumers do plan to return to in-person appointments once the pandemic is over, particularly to see certain types of providers and services including urology, pulmonology and ear nose and throat (ENT) physicians.
When it comes to virtual waiting rooms, 81% preferred them during the pandemic while post-pandemic, 55% of the respondents said they would prefer a physical waiting room. Of those who have used a virtual waiting room, 65% reported a positive experience. This is an indication that consumers will likely embrace a dual in-person and virtual model in a post-pandemic world.
More people are seeking out mental health services
The number of consumers seeking mental health treatment jumped by 10% percentage points during the pandemic, with 26% saying that the events of the past months including the pandemic, presidential election and social inequality have caused them to seek mental health treatment. More troubling is the finding that nearly one-quarter of consumers (23%) missed their appointments with their healthcare providers due to their mental state. For these patients, it can be a life-threatening situation when communication and reminder efforts fail to engage and encourage action. More than one-third (38%) of those who said they missed a healthcare appointment due to their mental health had sought out treatment due to the pandemic, social inequality and the election. Prior to the pandemic, older age groups (55 and older) made up the largest percentage (40%) of those seeking mental health treatment. During the COVID-19 pandemic, younger consumers (aged 35 to 54) made up the largest portion (47%) of those who answered that they sought treatment for issues related to the pandemic or political events.
To learn more about the research findings visit: engage.stericyclecommunications.com.