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COVID Care: Here’s what wary patients want to hear from their providers

By Sarah Fryda, MS

The outbreak of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) has many patients feeling anxious. It’s no mystery why—the virus’s spread has been alarmingly fast, and the attendant stories in the media have struck a tone that comes close to panic.

Responsible healthcare leaders recognize, however, that it’s important to be prepared in incidents like this, not frightened. Patients and consumers alike are turning to healthcare organizations not just for care in the event of infection, but also as reliable sources of objective information and emotional stability.

While healthcare organizations always strive to deliver warmth and empathy with their care, the eminent priority will always be—should always be—patients’ physical safety. In the event of a public-health emergency, extra protective steps may entail some small sacrifices in the tone and tenor of the care experience.

It’s down to healthcare leaders’ judgment to strike the balance between an emotionally satisfying episode of care and one that keeps patients safe. To help guide leaders’ decisions, NRC Health has analyzed hundreds of patient feedback comments to identify those that mention the coronavirus. Here are some consistent themes from your patients:

Lack of emotional support

Patients aren’t always feeling comforted by their visits to their providers. And emotional support is a major issue for patients with concerns about the coronavirus: while just 21% of general patient comments are about emotional support, among patients who mentioned the coronavirus, 44% raised concerns about emotional support.

An unusually high proportion of these comments, furthermore, were negative. While only 12% of general patient comments on emotional support are negative, a full 35% of COVID-related emotional-support comments were negative.

These complaints weren’t restricted toward frontline providers, either. Only about one third (29%) of negative comments were directed toward providing clinicians. The rest were related to administrative and support staff, technicians, and supporting nurses.

Fear of contagion

Patients are also fearful of contracting the illness themselves. Comments raising fears about catching COVID-19 from other sick patients—or even from seemingly ill staff members—dominated the discussion among patients who mentioned coronavirus in their feedback. Many patients also observed a lack of basic sanitary practices like hand-washing or wearing a mask.

This highlights the heightened scrutiny health systems are under during this time and the additional steps they may need to take in order to project an impression of hygiene and safety. (More on this below.)

Missing the diagnosis

A smaller proportion of patients felt that they were already at risk for COVID-19, but were improperly screened at their provider’s office. They believed that providers were dismissive of reported symptoms and skeptical about potential incidents of exposure.

What should healthcare organizations do?

These varying points of view can be difficult to reconcile. But if organizations adopt meaningful, human-centric guidelines and apply them consistently across departments and staff, it will help reassure consumers that they’re in safe hands.

Here are a few basic recommendations, based on patient comments, that healthcare providers can deploy to demonstrate human understanding:

  • Give patients a chance to voice their anxieties.
  • Show empathy while hearing their concerns.
  • Ensure staff are consistent—and visible—in their hygiene practices.
  • Educate patients and family members about hand-hygiene—and about the signs and symptoms of COVID-19—so they can stay safe after discharge.
  • Follow up with patients at home to ensure they’re not developing any complications and are on track in their recovery. (Automated discharge calls may be helpful to effectively execute outreach.)

Remember those at the frontlines

Finally, the strain of these special circumstances cannot be emphasized enough. Health-system frontline staff are facing enormous pressure in their roles as practitioners, guides, and advocates for public health. Organizational leadership must be careful not to overburden them.

A well-cared-for workforce, after all, will be better equipped to care for patients—and showing them empathy and understanding is the best way to make sure those qualities are reflected in their work.