The time is now. The question is how?
Many health care providers have been closed since the middle of March. For 10 long weeks, providers have been trying to serve patients as best as possible, with specialists being especially stymied by elective procedure and social distancing restrictions.
Now, as Illinois begins loosening restrictions, medical professionals are opening their doors again. But how do we communicate this opening in a manner that respects the ongoing pandemic, while urging patients to get care – all without seeming crass?
I recently attended a virtual forum about healthcare marketing as we move forward within the ongoing covid-19 crisis. The forum focused on East Coast systems and included some valuable overall strategies. Because I’ve been helping individual physicians, small and large practices, and hospitals market and promote in Chicagoland for 27 years, I’m also including my own recommendations.
What should messages include?
First, even though the pandemic is nowhere near the “end” (whatever that may be), consumers of health care services are experiencing negative message fatigue. Consumers have heard the warnings, they’ve heard the safety recommendations and they’ve heard the infection counts each day. Negative messaging is having a serious effect on our psyches and we’re hearing more and more advice from behavioral health experts to just turn off the news.
Combat this with messages that are helpful and hopeful. In your social media and email touches, it’s vital to “show, not just tell.” Use stories, videos and photos of sanitizing procedures, masks in place and new waiting room protocol or configurations to give your potential patients confidence and soothe fears about contamination. Create a safety checklist with items such as “mask on”, “hands washed”, “surfaces sterilized” and explain how everyone in your office is strictly following this.
Caregivers themselves are the voices patients trust most, so place the faces of physicians, PAs and nurses front and center in your messages. Build on the recognition providers have established within your patient base and in the wider community. Emphasize the extraordinary efforts your medical professionals are making right now.
Clearly communicate your availability. If your office hours have changed, make sure they are updated on your website and social media. Send an email with these new hours.
If you’re offering telemedicine, clearly explain how to access it, how to make an appointment and how to use it so patients feel confident with the technology. Emphasize the point that virtual care is real health care and that some initial diagnoses, follow-up visits and other issues may be resolved through video chats.
Make sure your entire team and all staff are on board and informed with your messages. Because patients are stressed and anxious during this time, poor patient customer service will be especially difficult to recover from. Urge your staff (whom we respect are also very stressed!) to go far above and way beyond to deal with patient check-ins, administrative and billing needs and any questions or problems patients may have.
Whom should our messages target?
The backlog of patients that haven’t been seen since mid-March need appointments now.
“Non-urgent” or “elective” doesn’t mean unnecessary. Urge semi-urgent patients back by explaining that any conditions that can worsen in 90 days should be cared for as soon as possible and further delay is a serious risk. This includes joint replacements, high blood pressure and heart disease, cancer screenings, asthma, pain management, skin conditions, obesity management and physical therapy.
Patients with chronic health conditions who had appointments cancelled should be encouraged to make up those visits.
Past patients who usually have annual wellness visits during the stay-at-home orders should be contacted to schedule appointments. Explain that preventative care is just that; it prevents disease and injury from occurring in the first place.
What media should we use?
• We can’t stress this first channel enough: email aggressively for a period of time, touching your existing patient base at least every other week with a variety of messages. Enrich your messages with facts and information about all kinds of medical issues, not just covid-19 related. Include a link to make an appointment in each message and strongly encourage your patients to schedule a visit.
• Use direct mail to reinforce your “we’re open and we’re safe” messages, encouraging appointments for those who do not have email or internet access.
• Contact by phone semi-urgent patients and patients with cancelled appointments to get them back in care quickly.
• Post notifications frequently on social media.
• Hyper local cable spots will help you hit a large audience economically
How do we move forward for the future?
Be a resource center for your patients and the wider community, full of potential patients. Enrich your website, social media and emails with robust, reliable content on a wide variety of topics to protect and improve the health of patients and their families.
“Show, don’t just tell” is a solid mantra now, just as it always has been. Make those videos and use photos of your physicians and medical staff. With permission, promote patient success stories wherever possible.
Continue to communicate why regular health care visits and preventative and maintenance care are important.
Start communicating positively to patients about a potential covid-19 vaccine now – and continue after a vaccine is in place. Counteract inevitable misinformation before it can take seed by speaking and sharing content about how vaccinations save lives. Implement and start promoting a “Vaccine YES” campaign, so when a vaccine does arrive, your patients who can receive it are ready to receive it.
Your patients have delayed care for two and a half months now. Those 75+ days have seen a decline in quality of life through aching joints and muscles, compromised hearts, lungs, kidneys and vascular systems, a drastic decline in childhood vaccination rates and future declining survival rates as cancers and other diseases have gone undetected and untreated for crucial weeks.
It’s time to call your patients back to get the care they need.