Author: Mike Milligan - President, Legato Healthcare Marketing
Let’s face it, ever since early March, whether you’re a rural health CEO, marketer, or other leader, you’ve been through the wringer. You’ve lived COVID virtually 24/7. But despite the extraordinary challenges, you made decisions swiftly, yet prudently. You took all necessary precautions to protect your patients and employees, and you came together as a team, responding to constant change.
Many of you downloaded our complimentary NRHA COVID Communications Toolkit during this time. It’s been a true sense of satisfaction for our team to see those materials used throughout the country. Through that process, I’ve had an opportunity to form new relationships, and to work alongside many of you during the peaks and valleys of this pandemic. What I’ve heard repeatedly is that you’re ready to return to full business as soon as you can, and as I discuss in this blog, when your patients are ready.
Please watch the short clip below to set the stage for this incredibly important topic:
Patients need to know the water is calm
With months of nothing but COVID in the news, we’re heading into May with promise of better days ahead. We’re not out of the woods yet, but many states have started dialogues with residents about what reopening will look like and when it may begin.
Here in Wisconsin, criteria for reopening includes “95% of our hospitals being in a position to treat all patients without crisis care and test all direct-care staff with symptoms for COVID-19.”
When will we reach 95%? No one knows exactly – which means every hospital needs to start planning now. The same holds true for hospitals across the country.
I’ve talked with many rural health leaders over the past few months. And I can say with relative certainty that every hospital’s pre-COVID business strategy needs to be reevaluated and most likely, completely revised. The knee-jerk reaction will be to build service lines and volume as quickly as possible. Revenue is needed – now. I understand that as well as anyone. But this is where the “calm water” analogy that I mentioned comes into play.
The majority of consumers need reassurance that they can safely and confidently dip their toe back into the healthcare waters as soon as you’re ready to accommodate them. This isn’t just my professional opinion. It’s fact.
Most of you who already know me also know that I’m a big proponent of research. If you’re a Legato client, you know how critical it is to complete a comprehensive planning process before we even begin to talk “creative.”
That’s why I wanted to share some eye-opening survey results with you. These aren’t just “nice-to-know” stats. These are critical facts to guide your next move.
First move: Regain confidence and trust
A comparison survey by PwC’s Health Research Institute (HRI) of American consumer sentiment before and during the pandemic reveals that consumers are concerned about the impact of the pandemic on their health and wallets, and are behaving accordingly. Of survey respondents:
- 32% said they had already made or were planning adjustments to their spending on healthcare visits as a result of COVID-19.
- 78% of these consumers said they would skip at least one visit such as a well visit, maintenance visit for a chronic illness, elective procedure or recommended lab test or screening.
Implication: According to HRI (and I emphatically concur), “Getting consumers to come back for care may depend on how much trust the health system can build with them over the next few months.”
Second move: Prioritize service lines
As you take steps to rebuild confidence in the safety of your hospital, plans need to be put into place for rebuilding service lines. The fact remains that many patients cannot afford to continue deferring critical treatments and procedures.
Rural hospitals along with their big-city counterparts will need to make meaningful and sometimes radical changes to their capabilities in order to regain lost ground and eventually transition to the post-crisis world of healthcare. For example:
- The new norm will most likely call for separate services for COVID and non-COVID patients.
- Given the need for even further belt-tightening, it will be essential to show ROI related to your business plan.
- Hospitals and clinics will also need to further differentiate themselves for competitive advantage.
Service line prioritization will be critical in meeting these challenges and identifying new opportunities for building consumer confidence, patient engagement, volume and ultimately, revenue. The Legato Planning Process has always incorporated service line prioritization, which is essential to developing a long-term, comprehensive marketing plan.
Consistent communication is more important than ever
HRI’s research also notes that the pandemic has created opportunities for health facilities to increase communications to consumers to build loyalty. Here’s why:
- Consumers were getting health information from three or four sources on average during the pandemic; most frequently from local news organizations.
- Notably, only 14% of consumers said they had received health information from their health system.
Implication: Again, according to HRI (and I strongly agree), “The pandemic has created opportunities for health systems to increase patient communication and loyalty. Health system communication with patients tends to be transactional. These facilities should focus on increasing patient loyalty by staying connected with them – even when they are not directly interacting with the system.”
When will patients start coming back?
McKinsey & Company also conducted COVID-19-focused healthcare consumer surveys. In April 2020, participants were asked if they would feel comfortable returning to various sites of care. Their response?
- 14%-25% didn’t know.
- 39%-42% indicated it would take more than a month after the pandemic.
But consider this:
- 50% said they might reschedule earlier (vs. waiting for the pandemic to end) – if they received prompting from a provider.
- 38% said “safety of care site/risk exposure” would be a consideration for when to reschedule.
Third move: Cast your line to connect with consumers
See what I mean about “calming the waters?” We can all agree that these are unprecedented times. So how do rural health leaders know what their next steps should be? Follow the research to realign your business plan with the new reality of COVID-19.
In other words, put consumers’ COVID concerns at ease. Build confidence. Let patients know it’s safe to return to a new normal – and the revenue will follow. That means addressing questions like:
- Is it “safe” to return? If so, what new safety protocols are in place to significantly reduce the risk of potential on-site exposure to the virus?
- Why it’s important for patients to get the care they need – now.
- What process do patients need to follow for rescheduling elective surgeries? For example:
- If you’re starting to perform surgeries again, are you contacting patients who had to cancel appointments or are you waiting for them to connect with you?
- What is the procedure for rescheduling, e.g., contact provider; schedule an office or virtual visit with the provider?
- What are you doing to plan for the needs of new patients?
- Are there new options for receiving care? If so, clearly communicate how and when to use these services, including:
- What type of appointments can be held using telehealth services? (See Doc Outside the Box for some helpful resources)
- Many patients, especially older adults, may not be familiar with the telehealth process – how will you “walk them through it”?
- Steps your hospital is taking to handle a potential resurgence of the coronavirus in your area.
How to begin to “calm the waters” in your rural community
Here are just a few of the critical ways Legato is helping our clients prepare consumers for re-entry into healthcare:
- Re-examine your marketing plan and update service line prioritization.
- Conduct focus groups of your patients to determine post-COVID perceptions.
- Build confidence internally first. Keep staff updated and engaged via internal communications.
- Communicate messages of confidence and trust to consumers through traditional and digital marketing. This should include:
- Letters to patients.
- Special newsletter edition or special report to the community.
- Website communications.
- Video messages from providers with specifics on what steps are being taken to keep your hospital safe.
- Social media, including consistent and timely posts and blogs.
- Develop letters to employers to keep them engaged and informed.
- Conduct community forums online or virtual town halls.
Let’s talk about where to go from here
Now is the time to prepare for what lies ahead. Please give me a call, or email me to schedule some time, and let’s have a casual conversation about our learnings the challenges yet to come, and some ways we might be able to help. And I have a few new ideas about ways to help jumpstart your hospital’s revenue stream.
Email me to schedule a 30-minute exploratory conversation: firstname.lastname@example.org. At the very least, you’ll form a new friendship and leave with some ideas to apply to your rural health organization when you’re ready to re-open for business.
Also, please join me for my presentation at NRHA's annual rural health conference, occurring as a virtual event this year:
"Re-entry: Building confidence for elective surgeries"
Wednesday, June 17, 2020 | 2:30 p.m. – 3:15 p.m. CDT