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5 best practices for engaging patients who've avoided medical care during the pandemic

Approximately four in ten adults in the United States have "delayed or avoided medical care" due to the COVID- 19 pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).1 For this reason, patient engagement has become a priority for healthcare providers today.

Take routine screenings, for example: A recent survey from the American Society for Radiation Oncology indicated that almost 75% of patients missed their cancer screenings — and this percentage is expected to be higher in under-served populations.1,2

Because of the high risk of getting COVID-19, patients often avoided care even if they needed it.3 We spoke with three experts on the best ways to engage patients who have been avoiding medical care.

Faisal Khan is senior counsel and hospitals and health systems practice lead at healthcare innovation law firm Nixon Gwilt Law, and chair of the enterprise risk management section of the American Health Law Association's hospitals and health systems practice group. He helps providers enhance their patient outreach strategies to increase their value to individuals and local and regional communities.

Janice Johnston, MD, is chief medical officer and co-founder of Redirect Health. She uses various population health protocols to guide and engage with patients on a regular and meaningful basis. Redirect Health has been recognized as a Level 3 Patient-Centered Medical Home since the program's inception.

Gail Trauco, RN, BSN-OCN, is CEO of The PharmaKon LLC, a company that increases diversity inclusion for patients in clinical trials. Trauco helps patients navigate the healthcare system by connecting people in need of treatment with care and the right medical coverage.

How can you better engage with your patients in order to maintain trust and reduce health complications during the pandemic? Read on for expert tips on how to bring patients back to your practice during the pandemic.

1 | Recognize that engagement isn't one-size-fits-all

"Resistance to seeking care during the pandemic is multifaceted and includes financial concerns, public health concerns and family care needs," notes Khan. If you're going to be effective in engaging patients, he recommends you implement strategies that are broader, more meaningful and more inclusive. Taking a varied approach to patient engagement best practices can help reach more of those who hesitate to come back to the clinic.

"Some people like newsletters to know what's going on in the practice," says Dr. Johnston. "Others prefer a directed call or text message. With the younger population, it's easier to respond to a text message than it is to listen to voicemails."

Your patients are going to access the information you provide in different ways, so cast the net as wide as possible.

2 | Use a patient-centered care approach 

"Efforts to re-engage patients need to truly be patient-centered and delivered in ways that appreciate and reflect the changes to patient and family circumstances during the pandemic," says Kahn.

Patient-centered care takes into consideration your patient's preferences and goals for treatment and empowers them to be in charge of their own health. Putting the patient at the center of their healthcare can help to improve outcomes and increase satisfaction.

A crucial step toward re-engagement is to let patients know what to expect when they come for their appointments. "We've learned in this pandemic [that] things change fast. There are things you might be offering that patients aren't aware of," says Dr. Johnston.

Proactively address any concerns your patients might have about the safety of returning to your practice. Share your infection prevention enhancements and the different ways that patients can now engage with you. The question your patients need to hear the answer to is: What are you doing to keep them safe?

For example, if you use drive-through testing or allow patients to wait in the car until they're led back to a room, make sure you're communicating this. Dr. Johnston shares that she has also extended her clinic to the parking lot. If patients don't want to come in for lab testing or vaccines, you can consider performing those car side.

"Those who are hesitant to come into the clinic feel the less time that they're spending within the walls, the better for them," Dr. Johnston says, "So we're making sure they feel safe and they're still getting the care they need."

3 | Connect with patients in community-based facilities

Depending on the location of your practice, you might have pockets of urban or rural areas where patients lack transportation or food access, or where there isn't a local community investment in routine health care. Not only should patient-centered care be at the forefront, but it is a great idea to also factor in community norms and practices.

For instance, Khan suggests going out into your communities where your patients gather.

"Really, it's embedding healthcare in the community in ways you can augment existing community health resources," says Kahn. This can include:

  • Information sessions at libraries or religious institutions
  • Promoting services at a school curriculum night or on school board panels
  • Eldercare facility Q&A panels with residents and family members
  • City council meetings to give updates on local public health

4 | Make technology work for everyone

Despite avoiding medical care during the pandemic, many patients want to remain under the care of their own provider, explains Trauco. HIPAA compliant technology is a great way to reassure patients you're making safety a priority.

It's putting virtual first, Dr. Johnston notes. In her practice, clinical care is guided through a virtual primary care team. By conducting the initial evaluation through telemedicine, they can often quickly take care of patients' needs without an in-person appointment. When telemedicine or a virtual appointment can't address what's needed, her team can coordinate for the next level of care, whether that's seeing an in-person primary care provider or specialist or coming in for an urgent care visit.

The patient portal is another key tool for engaging patients and ensuring that care is patient-centered. Through secure online portals, you can share test results as soon as they are available, then discuss with your patients via portal message whether or not in-person care is needed. It's easier for patients to access an online portal than it is to try to get someone on the phone. Trauco gives the example that "it's a lot of anxiety if someone is worried their glucose is elevated. But for peace of mind, they can see those results within 24 hours in online portals." Point-of-care lab testing can also minimize that anxious wait time for results.

Online patient portals can also be useful for patients to contact the clinic for non-emergency questions and concerns. Your care team, including nurses, can be positioned to address these and work to coordinate the care patients need.4

Provide care, perform exams and stay connected to your patients when you can't be face-to-face, with telehealth and virtual care.

5 | Use media to educate 

Being in tune with the changes brought about by COVID-19 and what's important for your patient population is helpful when you need to re-engage those who have been avoiding medical care. Dr. Johnston's clinic uses Facebook Live for patients to send in their questions in advance and holds question and answer sessions.

"Right now, we're in this day and age where there's so much information, it gets overwhelming as to what you listen to and what you don't," says Dr. Johnston. "It's nice to have bite-sized information coming at you from somebody that you know and trust."

Along with podcasts and social media pages, local television can reach audiences of a wide variety of generations and demographics. Morning news segments are a great opportunity.

You don't need to spend money on a coach to go on TV, Trauco urges, you just need to know who to talk to and have some creativity. Trauco recommends sharing a one-page document with bullet points on the topic you'd like to discuss. For example, cancer screenings and children's health can be topics of importance for many people. Being able to link your topic to a celebrity or news topic such as Breast Cancer Awareness Month is helpful and more likely to catch the attention of newsrooms.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed providers to be creative in their patient engagement best practices. But, Trauco notes that in the end, "genuine care and compassion will bring patients back via telemedicine or in-person office visits."

This has the potential not only to help support the growth of your practice, but to establish and strengthen your rapport with your patients.


© 2021 McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc.