Without question COVID-19 has caused incredible disruption to industries across the board, with the healthcare sector experiencing some of the greatest challenges. At the same time, however, the pandemic has been a catalyst for rapid innovation, revealing opportunities to rethink and transform approaches to care delivery and access. From learning to operate remote call centers to looking for more digitally-enabled ways to engage with patients (e.g., virtual care, virtual assistants), the pandemic has pushed health systems to reimagine—and quickly—their approaches to enabling patient access.
This changing patient journey was core to the theme of this year’s Annual Thought Leadership on Access Symposium (ATLAS) focused on Re-Paving the Future of Patient Access. The event, which has been bringing the industry’s leading voices together since 2014, welcomed 200+ healthcare leaders virtually to discuss 2020 and look ahead to what’s next. While attendees agreed they’ve learned a lot in the last nine months, they also shared the belief that now is the time to envision a new path forward and continue redefining what the future of patient access can, and should, look like. Here are a few highlights from the discussions:
- Strong leadership and cross-functional collaboration are paramount. Leading an organization through chaos and uncertainty is no easy feat, regardless of size or industry; however it is the most important part of successfully crossing through barriers to come out stronger on the other side, and top health system CEOs certainly stood up to the challenge. Strong leadership in quickly bringing teams together from across the enterprise to collaborate, and a renewed commitment to connectivity within their organizations, enabled many health systems to get things done and was the ultimate first step in pivoting in the face of the pandemic. However, health systems were also attuned to those in their communities that were underserved. To address this proactively, leaders made major moves in connecting with schools and other local organizations to stay connected with their patient populations. As one CEO said, “It’s always been about the people. There are amazing people that work in this industry. We run businesses because that gives us the resources to invest …. [but] remember why we’re here—for the patients.”
- Digital access is in the spotlight and health systems have accelerated their roadmaps accordingly. With a now heightened insight into what is working, what isn’t, and where the biggest areas of opportunity lie around access, health systems are “shaking the snow globe on the way [digital priorities] are ranked.” Perhaps the biggest victory thus far was the move to virtual care to enable patient convenience and safety. However, while health systems knew digital was working in various forms already, the issue to tackle when the pandemic hit was digital—at scale. One of the areas leaders mentioned emphasizing the most? The need to have a complete and adaptable provider directory in place. Digital changemakers realize investment here is more important than ever as “transactional elements,” enabling patients to conduct transactions online, and a focus on a patient centric model, is crucial to success. “If we build the right things that patients need, we can build the right door for patients to enter.”
- Internal support is key to external care. Among many of the principles of customer experience is the need to take care of employees first so they can, in turn, take care of patients. With call center agents continuing to support high call volumes, as well as navigate the challenge of working from home, better supporting their staff was a key priority for many access leaders. This included addressing tangible needs, like access to strong wifi, appropriate hardware, and new or additional training, as well as the intangible aspect of managing burnout and promoting team morale. Health systems made a principal effort to understand agents’ stressors and coordinated with HR to support concerns like daycare and offer internal hotlines and resource guides “to make sure people knew they were supported.” Another major morale effort was having leadership proactively recognize everyone's hard work and the important roles they play. This understanding of the value of keeping everyone connected has been essential for maintaining productivity and engagement from remote agents.
- Effective provider engagement hastens actions towards digital access initiatives. A common thread across successful patient access initiatives is effective provider engagement, and clear communication with providers to explain what access initiatives entail is key. As one health system leader explained, this meant having a physician partner with their non-physician teams to bring credibility to action—and having that credibility with providers was a major benefit in moving quickly with digital initiatives when the pandemic hit. Having provider stakeholders on access projects was not only integral to moving quickly and gaining alignment, but also for building trust and maintaining momentum. As one leader put it, “At the end of the day, it is about building trust. Trust allows health systems to pivot quickly and pursue many types of digital transformation. It isn’t about one tool, but a change process.”
- Health systems should utilize patient voices as a top resource for change. COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on the collective patient experience—in both negative and positive ways. In navigating these uncertain times, participants on our patient panel said communication from organizations is key. Whether it is providing clear directions on how to access virtual visits or proactively reminding patients about an upcoming appointment via text, meaningful interactions can go a long way in alleviating patient anxiety about seeking care. Panelists also advised health systems to recognize the differences in their patient populations. For example, Kyruus’ annual survey of 1,000 healthcare consumers found that millennials and Gen Xers are eager to schedule appointments online, but baby boomers are less so. During this time, patients are looking for empathy, so health systems should look for ways to give patients a voice, as well as engage with them in a variety of ways. As one panelist poignantly put it, “no one wants to be just a number.”
From accelerating digital strategies to operating successful remote call centers and engaging providers effectively in access initiatives, this year has showcased the importance of working together and the opportunities for innovative approaches in re-defining patient access.
For more insights on how consumers are seeking care and health systems leaders are changing the landscape of patient access and experience, check out these resources: