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Returning to normalcy: Tactics for recapturing patient volume post-pandemic

By Brian Wynne, Vice President and General Manager, NRC Health, published at beckershospitalreview.com.

To the array of shocking statistics on the effects of the coronavirus, we can add this: in the first two months of the outbreak, hospital volumes declined by an average of 56 percent. This totals approximately $1.44 billion in lost revenue per day.

This dramatic financial impact has put healthcare organizations in a difficult position — and as yet, rates of infection show no sign of slowing.

What’s clear is that health systems must move to recapture lost volumes to return to positive financial performance. What’s less clear is how. NRC Health’s consumer and patient research offers guidance for healthcare organizations to win back the trust and support of their customers. Two tactics, both backed by self-reported patient feedback, will prove indispensable:

  1. Address and allay patients’ fears
  2. Leveraging online search to create a digital advantage

Allaying consumer fears

Concerns about COVID-19 remain pre-eminent in consumers’ minds. In a recent nationwide study conducted by NRC Health, 81 percent of respondents said that they are either moderately or highly concerned about the coronavirus, and believe everyone is potentially at risk of catching it.

It’s no surprise that these pronounced anxieties have affected consumers’ healthcare decision-making: 60 percent of consumers, in fact, believe that any visit to a medical facility presents an elevated risk for contagion. As a result, 58 percent of consumers report that they have delayed care due to coronavirus fears.

Some better news for health systems is these concerns may be easing. Sizeable cohorts of the population — although still the minority of consumers — are now expressing a willingness to make appointments again. 33 percent said they’d be ready to have an elective procedure in the next two to five months, and 40 percent said the same about routine/primary care visits.

If consumers are willing to enter facilities in the coming months, right now represents a great opportunity to engage with them and earn their favor. However, residual worries about the virus will likely continue to influence their decisions. How should health systems ease these concerns?

First, organizations should make a concerted effort to share what they’ve done to protect patients, using a data-based approach to communications. Consumer-intelligence tools can reveal consumer preferences concerning the modality, the frequency and the content of this health-system messaging.

One trend worth considering: according to NRC Health’s research, 46 percent of consumers say they’re awaiting word from their primary care physician before they’ll consider booking any medical appointments. That’s more trust than consumers put in any other possible news source — including the federal government and national healthcare brands.

Adapting to such clear communication preferences will be an important step, but it won’t be sufficient to earn patient trust. While internally designed messaging can be powerful, it may not be enough to motivate behavioral change.

For that, consumers will want to hear form their fellow consumers. Of NRC Health’s respondents, 94.4 percent rely on ratings and comments from other healthcare consumers to guide their decisions.

Health systems, then, should assure that verified patient ratings and reviews be easily accessible and appear consistently on their owned web domains. Publishing ratings and reviews from verified patients, as well as increasing the quantity and quality of ratings on third-party websites (e.g., Google+, Facebook, Vitals), is likely to be more effective than traditional marketing messaging.

Leveraging SEO to create a digital advantage

The coronavirus has quieted many portions of the economy, and healthcare is no exception. But this state of affairs won’t last forever. As communities re-open their economies, health systems should expect the competition for volumes to be both fast and fierce.

The same forces that shuttered the marketplace, however, have also left organizations with fewer means to reach their consumers. Social distancing has removed many of their conventional points of contact with the healthcare customer.

Health systems, therefore, face a dual challenge. Not only must they distinguish themselves from their competitors, but they must also do so against a backdrop of social isolation. To do this, they should focus on one domain that remains unaffected by COVID-19: online search.

If Search Engine Optimization was important before the pandemic, it’s essential today. Millions of consumers, already predisposed to turn to the internet for information, are even more reliant on it now. Health systems must take every opportunity to bolster their digital presence and rise above their competitors in search rankings.

For this, health systems must court Google. The search giant, through which 80 percent of search traffic flows, rewards websites that serve searchers with fresh and relevant content. Perhaps the best means available for health systems to furnish this content is to publish patient comments. This gives organization websites a constant stream of relevant material, which is a potent draw for consumers — and a critical ranking factor for Google’s algorithms.

OrthoNebraska, a surgical provider in Omaha, Nebraska, discovered as much when they began publishing patient comments through NRC Health’s Transparency solution. Their domains rose to an authoritative spot on local searches, spurring a 21 percent increase in unique visitors and a 49 percent increase in new appointments.

And OrthoNebraska’s success isn’t an anomaly. LCMC Health, a large health system in Louisiana, also wanted to take their organization into the digital age. To bolster their brand’s digital presence, and to earn trust from their patients, LCMC Health decided to publish provider ratings on their website. Today, they continue to see success when it comes to attracting customers with patient feedback; Transparency Physician Champion and LCMC Health provider Dr. Christopher Lege credits the published reviews for the organization’s increased patient volume. “As a physician I am aware that patients are choosing a provider based on the information online,” he says. “I’ve even had new patients come to me as a result of the reviews they’ve read.”

Thriving post-pandemic

COVID-19 has exacted a steep toll on so many already. But we may optimistically expect a return to some semblance of normalcy — as long as we keep in mind that the same customer-acquisition strategies that served health systems before COVID-19 may not function as well once the pandemic is behind us. Competition waits around every corner, and those healthcare providers who seek to understand their customers — their wants, needs and behaviors — will be the ones who succeed in restoring volumes and revenue growth to their organizations.