By Tashfeen Ekram, MD
We are all aware, many painfully so, that the COVID-19 pandemic goes beyond a risk to people’s health. The financial losses radiology practices around the country have experienced and continue to face are very real. As a specialty, it’s critical we address those losses to ensure the health of both our patients and colleagues’ practices.
To offset losses, many clinics are implementing pay cuts and furloughs. But those moves are often akin to a Band-Aid solution to a much larger problem, and they leave the underlying issues unsolved. As we conduct business as usual and plan for ongoing waves of infection, it’s important that clinics implement sound and action-oriented strategies that minimize the damage and set a more solid foundation for our uncertain future.
In radiology, we understand there are unique challenges COVID-19 presents to our patients and practices. Given our focus on screening, patient perception is often that they can delay. With fears around the coronavirus, patients are making choices about what they see as critical vs important care. It’s no secret that nonemergency radiology often falls into the latter category. For radiology practices, when it comes to recouping lost revenue and planning for the future, it is critical to educate and prioritize patients.
As physicians, we know how important it is for our patients to stay on schedule with their care plans. That’s why we need to educate them about the health risks of postponing their planned screening. Your strategy should focus on educating patients both about the importance of maintaining their care schedules and your practice’s plans and policies for keeping them safe. If they don’t feel safe coming into the office for a scan, they won’t.
Beyond patients, it’s also important to educate our primary care partners. Letting them know we’re open and doing everything possible to keep patients safe will go a long way toward nurturing those critical relationships.
During the shutdown, we all had to cancel appointments and are now looking to get those patients back in for their screenings. But post-COVID limitations, such as waiting room capacity and sanitation processes that can add up to 45 minutes between patients, make it impossible to get all of those patients in immediately. Therefore, it’s necessary to look at the patient backlog and “rank” patients—ie, short term, medium term, and long term. Those who are most at risk should be labeled “short term” and given the first appointment times, and so on.
You can execute these following four tactics to educate and engage your patient community—no matter where they are in the backlog—to begin the process of financially recovering from COVID-19.
Prompt patients to reschedule canceled appointments. Reach out to patients with a reminder—and an easy process—to reschedule. With so many cancelations, the easiest way to do that is by sending a mass message first to all short-term patients whose appointments were canceled, rather than manually sending a message to each patient. Offer those individuals first available slots and then continue down the list of medium-term and long-term patients.
Within that single message, you can include a link for patients to self-schedule their appointments, relieving your staff from having to spend their time on the phones and providing your patients more control over scheduling. In addition to prompting patients to reschedule their appointments, messages can include screening questionnaires that help prioritize which patients need to be seen first and whether patients have any symptoms of COVID-19.
Enable seamless screening. Use your website to prescreen patients. As more people look to reschedule their appointments, it’s important to screen for COVID-19 symptoms to ensure the health and safety of office staff and other patients. By automating processes and making information available digitally, you can drastically reduce the time office staff needs to spend on these tasks, while fitting into most patients’ preference for digital interactions.
Make patients feel comfortable seeking care. Many people are still uncomfortable with the idea of leaving home, especially to go for a screening with equipment that’s shared between patients. Therefore, it’s important to ease those fears.
Some of our customers are doing this by removing reasons for patients to talk to someone at the front desk—such as collecting information online in advance of appointments, eg, COVID screening, copay payment, and insurance information. You can leverage technology tools that enable staff to interact via text message so patients can alert the front desk of their arrival at the clinic. When rooms are full, a patient is given a period of time when they can return and, like many restaurants, they receive a text when it’s time to come back for their in-person visit.
Communicate conveniently and efficiently. Your phones are likely ringing off the hook right now as patients call to reschedule, ask questions related to their health, and inquire about COVID-19 policies, among other things. One way to manage the additional burden on your staff—and increase patient engagement and satisfaction—is by adopting text messaging as one way to communicate with patients. Many patients actually prefer texting for its convenience. It allows them to get in touch with your clinic without long hold times and fits into most people’s existing communications process.
There are many ways you can use text messages to drive efficiency, from appointment reminder text messages to sharing educational information about managing chronic disease. Texting will play an important role in the future of health care communication; embracing it now is a step in the right direction.
Beyond these four tactics, practices should reach out to patients to get a sense of what they’re thinking. Collecting—and then addressing—those feelings and/or concerns builds confidence and trust between provider and patient that’s important in the best of times and critical right now. This can be done with simple survey tools that are built into your communication platform.
It’s evident that the effects of COVID-19 will be felt for a long time. Rather than reacting to what comes next, clinics that have a strategic plan in place to help recover lost revenue will be in a solid position to bounce back faster. These steps aren’t the sole path to getting there, but they are solid and proven actions that lead to increased patient engagement, more consistent revenue, and improved patient and partner relationships.
— Tashfeen Ekram, MD, is a practicing radiologist at the Redwood Radiology Group and cofounder and CMO of Luma Health.