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As rates of new COVID-19 cases decline, what are healthcare consumers thinking about?

The decline in coronavirus infection rates has been welcome news for everyone.

At the same time, however, the end of the most acute phase of the pandemic also puts healthcare systems in a delicate position. Organizations are ready to resume serving their communities. But are consumers ready to come back into the fold?

In answering that question, much will depend on how health-system leaders manage the transition back to normalcy. Leaders will have to carefully integrate consumers’ needs and expectations into their strategy if they hope to win back their community’s trust.

To help them accomplish this, NRC Health has conducted nationwide surveys of post-COVID-19 consumer sentiment. Some of the most salient findings are presented below.

Shifting consumer concerns

The last time NRC Health conducted this survey was in mid-April—close to the peak of the epidemic for some regions of the country. Results from that survey reflected the severity of the crisis.

When it comes to the disease itself, this month’s results reveal that some consumer fears may be easing.

For instance, 88% of respondents reported that they were moderately or highly concerned about the disease last month, while this month only 80% of respondents said so. Likewise, 34% of respondents from this month’s survey said they believe that “everyone is at risk” for COVID-19, a decline of 14% from last month.

Consumer concerns about the disease’s economic impact were a little more mixed.

About the overall economy, consumers appear to be feeling a little more optimistic:  50% of survey respondents said they were extremely worried about the economy last month, while 45% of respondents said the same this month.

Personal income, however, is another matter. Concern about that has climbed, from 33% feeling extremely concerned about it last month to 41% of respondents saying so this month.

The road back to care

First, the bad news for healthcare organizations: fears about provider capacities are on the rise.

40% of respondents reported they were extremely worried about the cost/availability of COVID-19 tests, versus only 24% last month. 50% said the same about their local hospital’s capacity to manage COVID-19 caseloads—an uptick from 42% last month.

These are significant concerns, but they belie a growing sense of confidence in local providers: 48% of respondents said that their opinions about community health systems have improved since the virus began.

This increased confidence may also be reflected in consumers’ willingness to return to providers for routine care. While 52% of respondents have either deferred care for themselves or for someone in their households, 24% of them said they’d feel safe to receive care today—a 9% increase over last month’s results.

All the same, a plurality of respondents (47%) said they’d rather wait between two and nine months to visit a provider.

What a safe facility feels like

Consumers, then, are expressing a broad willingness to receive care again in the relatively near future. But they also want to see providers taking special precautions to protect their safety.

Their desires, as reflected in this survey’s results, track closely with government recommendations for safe conduct during the pandemic. Here are the proportion of respondents who believe that the following steps are “very” or “extremely” important to take:

  • 70%—giving temperature checks to everyone entering a building
  • 57%—taking incoming patients directly to private rooms
  • 78%—requiring everyone, including other consumers, to wear facemasks
  • 78%—spacing chairs six feet apart
  • 77%—requiring everyone to wash their hands upon entering the building

Adopting these eminently sensible measures will go a long way toward reassuring consumers.

Spiking interest in virtual care

COVID-19 is a watershed moment for telehealth. The appeal of long-distance care has surged in the era of social distancing.

60% of respondents are somewhat or very interested in having phone-call appointments with their providers; 57% are similarly interested in virtual screen-sharing conferences, and 51% would like to talk to providers through an online portal. Overall, 64% of respondents said that, if they need an appointment in the next three months, they intend to use a digital care-delivery service.

Perhaps more striking than consumers’ interest in this technology is their aptitude at managing it. 70% of consumers said that they’re “very” or “extremely” comfortable with the various platforms and technologies behind virtual care.

This comfort may explain another phenomenon: how much consumers enjoy telehealth services. 74% of respondents who actually had a digital appointment said they were very happy with how it went. Somewhat surprisingly, satisfaction actually peaks with those aged 75 and over, 78% of whom said they enjoyed the telehealth experience.

No doubt, COVID-19 has pushed more people to try telehealth than ever before. And now that some consumers have tried it, they may not want to do without. Only 37% of respondents said that they’d prefer in-person appointments to digital, even once the pandemic is over.

More insight to come

Navigating evolving consumer sentiment can be a challenge, even in the best of times. In a crisis—even one in its waning days—it can be much harder.

We hope that the above trends may be edifying for organizations as they seek to tactfully resume their operations, and we also invite leaders to further explore NRC Health’s data.

A full report on the recent survey’s findings, complete with generational demographic breakdowns, consumer communication preferences, consumers’ ideas about visitor policies, and more, is available here.