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COVID-19 update: Not sure what your customers need from you? Here’s what the data suggests.

The coronavirus epidemic, perhaps more than any other recent event, has underscored the unique role that healthcare organizations play in their communities.

It’s shown us that consumers aren’t just turning to health systems when they’re ill. They’re also looking to healthcare organizations for guidance, leadership, and managerial competence in the face of crisis.

But how can health-system leaders best demonstrate these qualities? Aside from caring for the sick, how should healthcare organizations demonstrate that they’re here for their communities and ready to marshal their resources to protect the public?

The precise answers to those questions will, of course, depend on the community under discussion. NRC Health’s nationwide survey data, however, has yielded some important observations about what all Americans want from their healthcare providers. These points may be useful for health-system leaders to consider as they plan their response to COVID-19.

Here’s what consumers around the country are saying about the epidemic.

Reality has hit home

The skepticism observed in the early phases of the epidemic has all but disappeared. According to data from NRC Health’s nationwide survey of consumers, nearly every American is now taking the coronavirus seriously; 40% of respondents said they were “moderately concerned” about the outbreak, and a further 48% said they were “extremely concerned.”

That’s an encouraging thought. People who take the risks of the virus seriously are more likely to take preventative action against it.

What’s less fortunate, though, is that the virus appears to have touched an enormous number of lives: 42% of NRC Health’s respondents said they have either tested positive for the virus, or they know someone who has.

This is yet another sobering reminder of the rapidity of the virus’s spread. Just a few short months ago, there was only one reported case in the United States.

The virus’s hidden tolls

The rising COVID-19 mortality count has been both grievous and startling. But tragic as they are, those lost lives represent only the most obvious cost that the coronavirus has imposed on the public. There are other, subtler costs as well.

Mental health, for instance, has taken a hit since the onset of the epidemic. 42% of respondents say that their mental health has somewhat worsened. A further 15% say it has significantly worsened. And 36% report fearing for the mental health of their children.

These figures may well be arising as a result of anxiety about the outbreak itself—or they could come from the stresses of extreme social isolation.

According to NRC Health’s data, they could just as likely be about the economy. A greater proportion of respondents—50%—are “extremely concerned” about the health of the economy than about the virus itself.

The tenor and focus of these concerns vary across generations. Americans over 40 are the most likely to express worry about a decline in their investments, with 49% reporting that they’re moderately or extremely concerned about the virus’s impact on their wealth. That may reflect their fears about a sudden, precipitous drop in assets they’re relying on for retirement.

Younger Americans, by contrast, have more day-to-day concerns: 34% of respondents aged 24-39 are “extremely concerned” about being able to pay their bills, and 44% of the same age group worried about losing their jobs.

How providers can help

With such a diverse array of anxieties to contend with, who can blame American consumers for needing signs of leadership within their communities?

While many of these concerns lie outside of health systems’ field of influence, that shouldn’t suggest that healthcare organizations are powerless to allay the fears of their customers. On the contrary, the data suggests that healthcare organizations are well-positioned to ease consumer anxieties.

Why? It comes down to trust. NRC Health’s respondents trust local healthcare organizations (30%) and national healthcare brands (42%) to handle the crisis more than they trust any other entity—including the federal government (13%).

What remains to be said is how organizations can make good on this trust—and again, the data provides some answers.

First, address capacity concerns

While consumers broadly trust their local healthcare organizations, they’re also worried about capacity: 71% of respondents said they feared their local hospital would be unable to handle the influx of COVID-19 patients.

Organizations should communicate frankly about this issue. Some health systems are, in fact, struggling to keep up with the coronavirus caseload. Others in different geographies are not. But whatever the case, consumers deserve to know—and health systems should not spare them the facts.

Open communication about expected capacity issues is the best way to empower consumers to plan ahead.

Second, expand off-site offers

A majority of respondents—60%—said that they believe there is an elevated risk to visiting their providers right now. In many cases, that assessment may be correct.

One way for provider organizations to work around these concerns is to extend an offer of remote healthcare services where possible. Large majorities of NRC Health’s respondents reported interest in these services: 71% said they’d be interested in appointments by phone, and 64% would take advantage of videoconferencing if it were offered.

This may be an opportune time to develop those treatment capacities if at all possible.

Third, hit the right mode, cadence, and messaging

Consumers are hungry for a connection with their healthcare providers right now. They want to feel that their local health systems are there for them.

But how can health systems establish that sense of connection? How can they break through the clutter of coronavirus messaging?

The best way is to reach customers in their preferred modality, with their preferred frequency, with messaging that matches their priorities. NRC Health’s data has some suggestions for all three.

Start with modality. Most respondents (56%) said they preferred email over any other form of contact. (39% also said they’d be interested in a news broadcast—but many health systems are not equipped to provide one.)

Next, the frequency. A significant plurality (35%) said they wanted to hear from providers every day—and 23% would like to be reached as often as new information becomes available.

Finally, what should health systems be saying in these daily emails? The three most important topics to consumers are COVID-19 treatment and recovery (51% of respondents), information on local testing sites (49% of respondents), and COVID-19 prevention tips (46% of respondents).

If these topics hit consumers’ inboxes with a daily frequency, it’s a reasonable bet that consumers will pay attention—and will feel grateful for the outreach.

A chance to show empathy

It’s no exaggeration to say that this is the defining American public-health crisis of our time. It’s been more than a century since the country has seen such a devastating outbreak.

In such dire circumstances, leadership is in high demand. But so is compassion. As the mounting scale of the tragedy asserts itself, consumers are yearning for support from their local health institutions. With good data in hand, that support becomes all the easier to offer.

At NRC Health, we’ll continue to trace consumer sentiment while this pandemic evolves. Here is the latest report; check back with us regularly for updated information on how your consumers feel about the crisis.

And if you have any curiosities, concerns, or questions about the data, please email us at info@nrchealth.com. We’ll be happy to help.