Patient experience. Another COVID-19 casualty?

For years, healthcare as an industry was the bête noire of what is known in marketing as “customer experience.”

People waiting months for appointments. Discharge packets as thick as phone books. Confusing bills with surprise charges. Zero pricing transparency and scarce outcomes data. Intake personnel with the charm of postal workers. Doctors well trained in chemistry, but too often unable to develop any with their patients.

A few years ago, this began to change.

With the advent of consumerism and value-based care, healthcare organizations started creating leadership positions solely focused on patient experience. They recognized that great customer service companies earn trust and loyalty during multiple “touch point” interactions, the superb handling of which requires forethought and design that puts the patient’s emotional needs ahead of the health care system’s.

With the internet available, doctors no longer were the sole possessors of sacred knowledge. The thinly disguised paternalism of clinicians of all stripes started to change as patients were treated as more equal partners in their own health decisions. Staff was being trained in hospitality industry techniques to not only satisfy, but to even delight when possible.

Hospitals ramped-up telemedicine and built offices in shopping malls to offer more convenience. Many providers started partnering with ride-hailing companies to fill transportation gaps. Even the intransigent problem of pricing transparency was starting to be addressed.

To be certain, the ability to optimize the patient experience was not distributed equally among all providers. But all were aware of it and, if they wanted to survive in the long term, all were doing something about it.

And then COVID-19 happened.

The novel coronavirus is not only a disaster for the world, but one for the patient experience movement in particular. The relentless climb in infections has pushed the priority of patient experience to the back of the line. After all, in large cities, where patients are being treated in temporary facilities, ambulances are being diverted and rising fatality rates, the last thing an overworked and highly stressed healthcare worker is thinking about is if they wore a big enough smile during their rounds. And rightly so.

But on the consumer side of the equation, even during a pandemic, people still need to deliver babies and get medical care for pre-existing conditions. Many face difficult choices as elective procedures have been postponed. But even if they could get in, who wants to go to a hospital now? Your medical needs may draw you straight to the place where where healthcare workers are treating COVID-19 patients. Biykem Bozkurt, professor of medicine at Baylor recently said, “I think patients are scared to be exposed. Their perception is that hospitals are hotbeds for exposure and contamination.” Some people will likely be shying away from hospitals long after it is prudent to do so.

The fact of the matter is hospitals are working to make sure their facilities are as accessible and safer for patients as possible, whether they’re seeking care for COVID-19 or in need of some other medical treatment. Also, many of the accoutrements of a better patient experience are still in place. In fact, some like telemedicine, are seeing a greater adoption across specialties and higher usage among patients.

That being said, perceptions of care and the safety of receiving that care have been altered, sometimes for the worse. What can hospitals do to repair patient experience after the crisis has subsided? Movéo sees three things:

Determine the extent of the problem

For patients who were processed during the crisis, try to take their (mental) temperature. Did they have a positive or negative experience? Are they understanding of the unique circumstances and incalculable stress the facility was under during the surge of COVID-19 cases? Did this affect their expectations or their experience? If a mea culpa is in order with these patients, this is a place to start.

Also, developing a plan to mitigate people’s fears and concerns about going to the hospital again should be a top priority. They are justifiably worried about their personal health and the health of those they care about, so tell them what your facility has done to create a healthy and safe environment. Then tell them again. Consider using a wide range of communication channels and materials— email, your web site, text messages, video, out-of-home, digital displays and others.

Keep in mind the patient experience when re-designing the hospital one

Hospitals will be different in the very near future. Already many, including Mount Sinai in New York and Seattle Children’s Hospital, have implemented new, COVID-19-specific policies and practices such as limiting patient visitors to two. Some are permitting only partners and grandparents in the labor and delivery ward. The list goes on.

Physically, there will be changes too, and well beyond providing more disinfectant sprays or wipes at frequently touched places. Social distancing dictates, such as staggered seating in waiting areas, will need to be enacted. This will require hospitals to consider how to control building ingress and egress, so that space use and density can be monitored. The use of digital signage or posters to remind people to maintain social distancing will likely proliferate.

Clearly space planning solutions can be used to reduce transmission of contagious diseases at healthcare facilities, and not only COVID-19. However, before you rush to implement the “6 feet hospital,” keep in mind the patient experience. When people go to the hospital, their anxiety is already high, while they simultaneously feel a loss of control. As you think about designing the new normal, give patients more control so that they are less vulnerable. It will help them feel more like people and less like pariahs.

Recognize that a good patient experience is made possible through your people

This is a great quote from Thomas Lee, MD, Press Ganey’s chief medical officer:

“Patients want a good experience. It’s not about parking, it’s not about something as simple as waiting time. It’s about how they feel. Do they feel peace of mind? Do they feel like everyone is doing all they can for them and working well together? These are the big drivers of patient’s likelihood to recommend. Do patients feel the teamwork is good, the communication is good, the empathy is real?”

The genuine engagement of your entire team is critical to patient experience. How are they feeling about working? Are they happy? Do they intend to stay on? Obviously, COVID-19 is testing these organizational bonds on a daily basis. It’s critical to understand how the pandemic has impacted your workers personal connection to your culture. It’s also important to understand if they feel their organization is caring for them, as well as understand how to improve and advance that care once the pandemic subsides.

In any industry that offers a service, there are moments when the long-term relationship between a business and its customers can change significantly—for better or for worse. COVID-19 is undoubtedly one of those moments. By keeping an eye on the foundational aspects discussed here, healthcare systems can better ensure a future with more patient experiences that have positive outcomes.