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COVID-19 and the patient-provider relationship: Insights from Mike Puchtler, VP of Patient Experience at ChristianaCare

COVID-19 is, without a doubt, the single most significant public-health event to occur in America in over a century. Among its many historic consequences, the pandemic has irreversibly altered the healthcare industry—and not just in how care is delivered.

COVID-19 has also fundamentally changed how, when, and why healthcare customers connect with provider organizations. For consumerism in healthcare, this was the defining trend of 2020.

The implications of all this change, however, are not as straightforward as they might seem. As NRC Health’s 2021 Consumer Trends Report has covered, there are a number of complexities for healthcare leaders to wrestle with.

To come to grips with these complexities, Mike Puchtler, Vice President of Patient Experience at ChristianaCare, lends his perspective on what the data should suggest for healthcare leaders.

Here’s what he has to say on two important domains.

The new relationship with—and through—social media

As COVID-19 case numbers mounted, ordinary socializing became impossible. But social media experienced something of a renaissance. Almost overnight, hundreds of millions of Americans became entirely dependent on digital modes of communication to make contact with friends, loved ones, and workplaces.

Crucially, social media also became a vital lifeline for healthcare information. And according to NRC Health’s research, no source of information was more important during the pandemic than local healthcare institutions.

“You have to think about how members of the population get their information,” Puchtler says. “When you have so much conflicting and confusing information in the media, we see that health systems in communities are the most trusted source for a lot of people. That’s a responsibility we have to take seriously.”

Puchtler believes that organizations should strive to make good on the trust they enjoy from their communities. To that end, the team at ChristianaCare was quick to seize the opportunity to inform the public.

“We did a series of interviews with Dr. Marci Drees, our Chief Infection Prevention Officer,” Puchtler says. “We had her talking about the virus, explaining what we know and how folks can protect themselves. It was an effective way to combat the misinformation that’s out there.”

This is an effective approach to consumer outreach. However, NRC Health’s research has found that it’s also important to exercise restraint: 66% of consumers want to receive healthcare information through searchable content on healthcare-organization social-media pages—and not through posts and updates sent through the user’s social-media feeds.

It’s a balance that organizations must be careful to strike.

As Puchtler puts it, “It’s about giving people the right message, at the right time, in the right modality. You don’t want to overwhelm people. You don’t want to communicate too much. Which is why you have to have a coordinated approach to outreach—the left hand has to know what the right hand is doing.”

The emergence of telehealth

2020 certainly saw a surge in social media’s importance for the healthcare industry. But that pales in comparison to the impact of another digital technology—telehealth.

According to NRC Health’s data, volumes of telehealth visits nearly tripled in the early phases of the pandemic, from 7.8% of customers reporting having used it in 2018, to 26.9% of customers in 2020.

Puchtler points to how this sharp uptick in telehealth consumption reflects not only increased consumer appetite for the service, but also a remarkable technological achievement on the part of healthcare organizations.

“It’s incredible how most healthcare organizations were able to expand telehealth and e-visit offerings, quicker than I think anybody thought possible,” Puchtler says.

Better news still is how much consumers seemed to enjoy these telehealth appointments. NRC Health data, gleaned from over 150,000 telehealth encounters in 2020, shows that 92% of consumers report having had a positive telehealth experience.

This level of satisfaction is why ChristianaCare—and other leaders in the industry—believe that increased telehealth utilization is likely to endure.

“We believe telehealth and virtual visits are here to stay,” Puchtler says. “Consumers are still expressing interest, and we’re investing heavily in fleshing out our virtual-care experience. I imagine many other organizations are doing the same.”

Puchtler envisions a future of mixed modalities, with telehealth substituting for some of the more onerous or routine physical encounters. He is careful to note, however, that telehealth is unlikely to completely unseat in-person appointments.

“As much as folks really like the convenience of virtual care, there’s always going to be some portion of the population, even in ambulatory-care environments, that will want to engage in a physical encounter,” he says. “Having a provider lay hands on a patient—there’s something about that that patients tend to enjoy.”

What really builds loyalty

There’s no doubt in Puchtler’s mind that virtual care represents a great leap forward for organizations striving to meet the demands of consumerism. But at the same time, he cautions that telehealth is not a global solution for earning long-term trust from customers.

“With telehealth, we remove the inconvenience of making people take time off work, having to travel to and from the care site, things like that,” he says. “But that alone is not going to be a driver of loyalty.”

Loyalty, Puchtler insists, requires a much more big-picture perspective. It’s not about removing the barriers from any one care experience—it’s about unifying a complete picture of the patient, so that organizations can learn to care for them as a whole.

“It’s our ability to know our patients, and have them feel like we’re fully invested partners in their health, that’s going to create a relationship,” he says. “Establishing that level of trust, to me, is our real opportunity to build loyalty.”

That’s a position that every healthcare leader would be well-advised to consider.