As a result of legal requirements driven by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, outpatient providers have seen an unprecedented drop in patient volume and demand for healthcare services since mid-March. Demand reduction has varied by specialty; however, most providers have experienced drops of at least 60 percent, with some as high as 100 percent. Now, as states begin to reopen, healthcare providers have a critical window to plan to capture as much pent-up demand as possible. It is yet to be seen how much of this demand will be “captured” versus “destroyed;” however, providers can take proactive steps now to optimize practice economics, cash positions and long-term practice strength.
To make the most of this opportunity, we believe outpatient providers and owners need to focus on three key strategic imperatives. First, providers need to capture as much demand as possible. Providers risk losing patient demand to competitors or patients foregoing services altogether. However, with some careful planning, providers may also stand to gain new patients during this unique time. Second, providers need to prepare clinical and non-clinical operations for success. To be successful, providers need to adequately address several critical challenges, including patient cancellations, service backlogs and a workforce with concerns about returning to work. Lastly, providers need to adapt to balance the need for delivering care with protecting staff and patients from infection. In the coming months, patients and staff will place a high priority on safety and expect options to ensure careful delivery of care (e.g., telehealth, minimal interaction with other patients, etc.). Providers need to meet these expectations.
Below are some concrete steps practices can take to address these strategic imperatives.
Capture as much demand as possible. Capturing as much pent-up demand as possible is critical. Traditional engagement and outreach methods will be valuable but insufficient to address the current circumstances. Providers need an innovative, all-hands-on-deck approach to patient marketing and engagement. Creativity and energy will be necessary to address this new, unchartered territory. Providers who fail to adapt their marketing and outreach practices risk substantial demand destruction or loss of patients to competitors. We recommend the following tactics:
- Start marketing now. To retain and even gain patients, start engaging and marketing to current and new patients now; many patients may be up for grabs in this unique environment.
- Focus on rescheduling past appointments. Many patients who have canceled appointments are ready to reschedule; retain these patients by proactively and consistently reaching out; consider implementing an automated or online scheduling system.
- Diligently confirm appointments. Patient cancellations could spike given concerns about safety; confirm appointments one to two days pre-visit to minimize day-of cancellations. During the confirmation call, communicate a simple plan to the patient about how the visit will be different from historic practice. This will help reassure patients that the provider is taking all necessary precautions.
- Set outreach goals for relevant staff. More hands-on marketing and tracking may be worthwhile. Consider setting goals for staff outreach and outcomes to ensure focus and good results.
Prepare clinical and non-clinical operations for success. This reopening phase will present unique challenges and opportunities, and providers need to have clinical and non-clinical operations ready for success. Consider the following:
- Add extended office hours/days if demand surges. Some practices may have significant pent-up demand; practices should consider whether and how to add extra hours (7 to 9 p.m.) and days (Saturdays) to meet the demand; services delayed too long may be lost or given to a competitor. Adding additional scheduling options may also help space out patients to allow for social distancing.
- Monitor state and local orders. Most states are reopening businesses and the economy on a rolling basis, with non-emergent, elective healthcare providers often permitted to open earlier than most other businesses. Even with this flexibility, things will be different than business as usual. Providers need to carefully monitor state and local orders and plan around any applicable limitations.
- Observe how other local businesses reopen. This will help providers to gauge patient comfort level as their communities take steps to reopen. Where patients are not ready to return, providers will want to minimize operational costs that may not have corresponding revenue, and potentially consider “soft” reopenings as discussed in a prior alert.
- Protect your workforce. A healthcare business’ most valuable asset is a trained and loyal workforce. Therefore, plans to reopen should prioritize employee safety and wellness. Providers should review applicable regulatory guidance, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance for healthcare facilities, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidance for employers along with CDC’s social distancing guidance. Strong planning around workforce safety could build employee goodwill and engagement for years to come.
- Consider weekly and monthly staff meetings to huddle on key issues. Identifying issues and resolving them quickly is critical (e.g., significant patient cancellations, safety concerns, etc.); providers may want to consider frequent, targeted meetings to allow staff to raise concerns and address key topics.
- Actively manage performance. Measuring key practice metrics, such as the number of patients served, patients scheduled, cancellation rate, etc. is more important than ever; set up or use a good performance management system to keep things on track. This will allow providers to identify trends and make practice adjustments accordingly to maximize productivity.
Balance the need for delivering care with protecting staff and patients. This delicate balancing act will require providers to be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances over the next several months.
Consider these tactics:
- Ensure safety. Stay informed on key safety risks and ways to mitigate COVID-19 and other health risks; continue to stay informed as best practices may evolve. For example, providers may schedule fewer patients per timeslot, spreading patients across the schedule. Providers may also want to shift/rotate staff schedules, where possible, to reduce the number of employees occupying the space at any given time. Providers will want to consider adding space to their waiting rooms or engineering protective barriers to reduce exposure, where possible. Providers may also consider providing automobile waiting options to reduce the number of people in the office. Before entering common areas, all staff and patient temperatures may be taken with no-touch infrared thermometers, so that those with fevers can be isolated.
- Emphasize patient safety in marketing and messaging. Patients are worried about safety, and these concerns can lead to delays and cancellations; consistently emphasize safety in all marketing and engagement communications (e.g., confirmation emails, calls, texts, website).
- Deliver and improve telehealth offerings. In the last two months, telehealth and phone consultations have greatly expanded due to patient demand and regulatory changes; continue improving telehealth offerings via technology improvements and clinical adaptations.
- Start lining up staff now for office openings. Providers need to return employees to work appropriately, considering staff furloughs/reductions. Start scheduling and confirming employee returns now so you can open your office and effectively meet patient demands. To motivate employees, emphasize patient needs, and consider whether hazard pay or a return bonus is warranted.
The next few weeks will be critical ones for providers. By taking proactive steps now, providers can reduce potential losses and optimize new patient opportunities. To be successful, keep three strategic imperatives in mind: capture as much pent-up demand as possible; prepare clinical and non-clinical operations for success; and balance the need for delivering care with protecting staff and patients. Providers who rise to the occasion will be set to make the most out of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If we can be helpful to you in any way during this unique time, please reach out.