The Role of Digital Engagement Tools in Managing the Return to In-Person Non-Emergent Care
As the U.S. healthcare system continues to address the COVID-19 crisis, non-urgent care has been suspended or cancelled across the country. However, we appear to be moving closer to reopening healthcare facilities as the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services recently issued recommendations for safely extending in-person non-emergent care.
While the timetable for the return of elective procedures remains unknown, recent guidance from CMS underscores the importance of adopting new technologies that enable nimbleness in our health care organizations. The protocols that are being developed to ensure a safe return to operations will only be effective insofar as healthcare institutions appropriately leverage digital technologies to promote patient and staff adherence to those policies. Healthcare institutions must leverage digital technologies to communicate directly with patients and staff in the following four critical situations to improve preparedness for the return of in-person non-emergent care:
Effective Utilization of Telemedicine
The expansion of public and private coverage for telemedicine that has sprung up in response to the COVID-19 outbreak has led to an accelerated adoption of telehealth in the U.S. Telemedicine is currently being utilized as an effective means for maintaining continuity of care delivery and condition monitoring for an expanding number of healthcare specialties. Healthcare institutions must continue to utilize virtual means to safely provide low and intermediate acuity services as this crisis continues to evolve.
Many of the telemedicine appointments that occur during this transformative period mark the first time that a patient will interact with a virtual care platform. As a result, healthcare institutions need to provide pre-visit instructions and set expectations in order to reduce patient anxiety, promote adequate preparation, and improve show rates. Additionally, the ongoing success of telehealth initiatives relies on patients actively engaging with their care plans. Digital navigation before and after these virtual visits is essential to the ongoing success of symptom monitoring and treatment plans.
Staff Screening & Engagement
The recent CMS recommendations detailed above highlight the importance of screening staff prior to their shifts in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 in both the staff and patient communities. Screening, testing, and making sure that staff who test positive properly self-isolate are essential steps to maintain adequate staffing levels in the event of further COVID-19 surges in the community.
It isn’t enough to screen and test staff upon their arrival to the hospital or clinic. In order to ensure that staff members are frequently monitoring their symptoms and seeking the appropriate course of treatment, healthcare institutions must deliver digital symptom screens and engage staff at home with the most up-to-date protocols.
Automated Patient Recall
As healthcare institutions begin reopening for non-emergent care, systems face the challenge of rescheduling and triaging patients. Healthcare institutions are currently developing protocols to determine which patients need to be rescheduled and depending on their symptoms, triage them to appropriate facilities that can help limit unnecessary exposure to COVID-19. Once the clinical decision is made that a patient should seek treatment, the task remains to schedule those patients using the most efficient means possible. Employing front line staff to manually call these patients in order to screen for COVID-19 and schedule appointments is a labor-intensive process that detracts resources from the critical needs of optimizing care within the clinic.
Digital communication methods like text message and email are quick and effective methods of reaching a diverse patient population. Digital health tools can be utilized to automate the outreach to patients to reschedule appointments, deliver COVID-19 screening surveys, and educate patients on the steps being taken by the institution to provide safe patient care. Engaging patients through the digital methods they prefer is an important tool for alleviating the burden placed on strained staff members.
Automated Patient Navigation
As Healthcare institutions reopen, patients will face changes to patient access policies such as the requirement to wear a mask, a new intake process, and limits to the number of allowed visitors. These patient access changes are likely to induce confusion and anxiety in patients resulting in poor adherence and increased no-show rates. As Omkar Ishrak, Chairman of Medtronic, noted in a recent interview with CNBC, “people who need medical care for urgent, non-coronavirus-related health issues may be hesitant to seek it out due to fear of contracting the disease”. The same holds true for patients facing the decision to engage with non-emergent care.
Delivering automated and easily understandable digital instructions to patients at the pivotal points leading up to their appointment is an effective tool for ensuring a smooth transition to the “new normal” of healthcare operations. Patients need to feel that their providers care about their well-being and are making active efforts to guarantee their safety. Digital communication is an important tool to reinforce adherence to the thoughtful policies being put in place to guarantee the safe and efficient navigation of patients back into healthcare institutions.
Healthcare institutions across the nation are working on their protocols to make sure that when the time comes, they are able to deliver care to their communities in a safe and effective way. Digital engagement with healthcare institution staff and patients must be a priority to ensure adherence to these emerging protocols on the path back to normal operations.