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How Hospitals Can Reverse The Patient Deferment Trend

By Paul Cooper is the Chief Information Officer at NRC Health, published here at forbes.com.


From twice-yearly dentist appointments and annual physicals to routine surgeries or emergency services, healthcare is essential to our lives and a constant in an otherwise hectic world. But even before the unprecedented spread of Covid-19, our research found that 23.24% of American consumers were intentionally choosing to defer both routine and necessary health care services. Since the pandemic started, KFF noted another 48% said they or someone in their household has deferred care.

Scary statistics, considering the very reason health care exists is to improve the lives of everyone in a community. Yet the reality is millions of health care consumers across the country are not going to the doctor, and it’s creating a real problem for health care systems.

When people defer care, health care organizations miss critical opportunities to intercede and prevent more serious health care issues. With no intervention, there is no diagnosis or treatment. And without treatment, health care experts often discuss the potential for health problems to escalate, leading to higher costs of care, more burden for hospitals and, in certain situations, worse outcomes for patients.

The health care system in this country is facing many challenges. While it’s returning to a new normal, care deferment will almost certainly increase, considering more than 40 million people are now unemployed as a result of the pandemic. If health care leaders don’t prioritize and begin implementing solutions to head off the deferment problem now, it will continue to be a vicious cycle for health systems far into the future.

Why are consumers delaying care?

We’ve found that Americans are putting off health care for a number of reasons, like a desire to manage their own care (24.91%), thinking their problem isn’t actually very serious (19.8%), concerns over taking off work (18.36%), not having health insurance (14.59%) and more. However, the most pressing issue causing consumers to put off care is affordability.

Health care costs have steadily increased over the last decade with the introduction of value-based care models, increasingly shifting the payments burden to patients. In 2019, nearly half of all health care consumers said they were either unable to pay for care or were worried about out-of-pocket expenses. Another 28% put off “necessary medical treatment” simply because they couldn’t afford it, up from 22% in 2018.

With no real end in sight to the economic issues Covid-19 has caused, the health care system will likely see more patients defer care in the coming years. And if consumers are electing not to engage with the health care system at all, patient loyalty will be even more difficult for hospitals to earn and maintain. With that daunting reality, what can health care leaders do now to curb the deferment trend and intervene with patients who feel they don’t have another option?

Is virtual care the answer to stemming deferment?

Consumers today want convenience, whether from their bank, favorite retailer or health care provider. Our data recently showed that 51% of consumers cited convenience and access to care as the two most important factors in their health care decision-making, underscoring why many people often choose to defer care when they can’t access provider services easily or conveniently.

Telehealth is a viable solution to these challenges because it allows patients to connect with providers on their own terms, which has proved especially beneficial during these uncertain times. With more than 60% of consumers noting an elevated risk with visiting a health care provider right now, it’s no surprise that telemedicine app 98point6 reported a 200% increase in telehealth visits since January 2020.

While many people are now realizing the benefits of virtual health solutions as an offshoot of the pandemic, the lower costs of care compared to in-office provider visits will likely be one of the biggest motivators for consumers to continue using telehealth services long after this crisis is over. In being “forced” to use telehealth now, the health care system could soon institutionalize it as a primary care delivery method, and with higher rates of adoption, the industry may see a decrease in patient deferment as well.

Together, technology and human understanding will help curb deferment.

While telehealth may help in warding off deferment, as I previously wrote, working toward an even-handed embrace of technology and human innovation will ultimately create better care moments, improve the consumer experience and earn patient loyalty for life.

Especially since the ever-present roadblocks that keep patients from getting care will likely only increase due to the pandemic, health care leaders must dig deep to understand the underlying sentiments that power the deferment movement in order to unravel it.

Hospitals and health systems can begin this process little by little, starting with human understanding and the knowledge of what truly matters to patients.

MetroHealth frequently asks its staff how they made a patient’s experience easier, and executives at OHSU Health Care ask themselves how they can free up provider time. Rather than trying to maximize billable hours, hospital leaders recognize that cultivating patient-provider relationships is one of the most valuable ways to drive up patient loyalty and further avoid patient deferrals.

But while delivering a positive care experience is important, it really only proves beneficial with regular, successive visits. And often, when people are deferring care, they’re choosing to do so for other reasons than just a bad experience. Reputation management and monitoring are also critical to help health systems maintain their patient base.

According to the Pew Research Center, 82% of Americans claimed they “consult online ratings and reviews when buying something for the first time,” while we found that 92.4% of consumers use online reviews to guide most of their purchasing decisions, underscoring how meaningful a hospital’s online presence is in today’s digital world. Cost containment and insurability are also major factors that must be solved when skyrocketing out-of-pocket costs are limiting access for consumers across the country.

There are many hurdles to overcome in curbing our country’s deferment of care problem, but taking a few definitive steps now will help hospitals make collective improvements toward bringing the patients no one sees back into the health care fold.