In many of our recent blogs, we have talked about the disruption the pandemic has caused in healthcare, how it has changed the healthcare landscape, and reshaped the patient journey. With many organizations having already pivoted (and some continuing to do so), the conversation has become “what’s next?” Though COVID-19 cases remain high in many areas, now is the time to start thinking about recovery and what it could look like.
To help healthcare organizations think through this topic and what the future of access could look like, we invited Karen Conley, VP of Clinical Services, and Deirdre Fenick, VP of Customer Success & Support, to answer a few questions about recovery planning and share their best practices for navigating through the pandemic.
Alignment is critical to reacting quickly and pivoting patient access strategies effectively. What are some ways health systems can break down organizational silos to enable coordinated decision-making?
Karen Conley: As a former Nurse Executive and Chief Nursing Officer, I have always found that in times of crisis, clinical and non-clinical leaders quickly come together to protect and care for the patients and families they serve. This has certainly held true during the pandemic. I have found that those organizations with strong clinical data governance committees in place have been more nimble and thus able to innovate faster and react to the changing requirements. We can only expect that access strategies will continue to evolve during this recovery phase and leveraging your interdisciplinary decision making bodies will continue to be a key tactic to ensure that your health system is able to flexibly use all access channels available.
Deirdre Fenick: In my 25+ years in the healthcare technology space, I have never witnessed healthcare organizations activate as quickly as they have in the face of the pandemic. Multi-year digital marketing strategies were accelerated and implemented in weeks. Patient access centers quickly evolved to distributed workforces as everyone adopted and adapted to working at home. In order to achieve all of this, in an effort to serve the community and keep staff members safe, the key was COMMUNICATION. Across our customer partners we have commonly heard that during the pandemic the importance of communication. We have heard stories from our customer partners that because of the need to be responsive in the face of changing information and patient needs they coordinated daily cross-functional operational status calls to communicate new information, messaging, workflows, and also get feedback from the front line teams.
What technologies do you see being critical to expanding access and enabling greater organizational flexibility during this time?
KC: Health care in general, has lagged behind all other industries related to access technology. However, the pandemic has forced health care to take several leaps ahead in electronic scheduling and virtual care options and is getting closer to offering “1-click” options for access to care. Patients will expect, during and after recovery, continued improvements in accessing their care and so health systems need to embrace the technological solutions for those that they serve. One example is virtual care. Virtual care options are appropriate for many clinical services, even post-pandemic, and developing a strategy to identify and enable access to those services is important to plan for now. Another is online scheduling. The convenience factor of making an appointment online, even in the middle of the night, is becoming an expectation, especially among millennials. Providing this option for your patients will not only delight them but also help you capture their demand and turn it into booked appointments.
DF: I think that the pandemic has taught many of our healthcare partners that you can move quickly when you get clear about your priorities and that patients are excited to access care in new ways–and will in fact change their behavior to do so. As an example, telemedicine visits in many organizations went from a few hundreds to hundreds of thousands since the pandemic started. Patients are eager to engage with technology as a part of their care. With this in mind, I expect to see healthcare only continue to move forward with regards to the use of technology to engage patients, and meet the patient where they are at.
Specific to call centers and agents, SaaS based technology solutions, like Kyruus, that enable the distribution of new information to agents uniformly and quickly, particularly as many of us still work remotely, will be very important for organizational flexibility. For example, in the early COVID testing days, there were daily updates to agents on how community members could access COVID testing, new testing sites, testing requirements, and what to expect upon arrival for the test. I would expect this will also be true as the COVID vaccine becomes available for distribution soon.
Provider burnout has risen due to the pandemic, but so has burnout among call center agents. How can organizations engage their agents and support them during this time?
KC: Agents, every day, deal with patients who are suffering, afraid and worried, leading to sometimes challenging discussions to find the right care. The pandemic has not only increased worry and stress for all but also has moved the agents into their homes to navigate these calls in the face of their own stressors, like child care and other family members also working from home. Health systems should consider supporting their agents by making sure they have the best tools to do their work in the home environment, including devices and electronic platforms. Some health systems have also offered flexible work schedules to allow for home and child care responsibilities. Finally, offering them clinical services such as work/life balance sessions, mental health resources, and self care options will also help them to avoid burnout during these stressful times.
DF: It is a stressful time to be a healthcare worker. What I have learned from our customers is that they generally follow the strategy of “you have to take care of yourself to be able to take care of others.” Our healthcare partners have a community to serve, and I know they work really hard to balance the pressures of executing on the day to day challenges, with caring about their employees and their families well being. As Karen mentioned, like many employers, health systems had to move call centers to remote and distributed models quickly. I think offering greater flexibility to address the challenges of balancing work and family demands will be very important to supporting agents at this time.
What role do you think providers have to play in recovery strategies?
KC: Access to reliable information about providers and health system resources is now more important than ever–and it will continue to be essential during recovery. With providers playing such a significant role in data management, a successful recovery strategy must involve their engagement. Clinical decision makers on your interdisciplinary data governance committees can become evangelists for the changes to and ongoing evolution of your access strategy within the broader provider community. At the provider-level, each provider can play their part by ensuring their profiles are up-to-date to enable patients to find the right care. In fact, they are eager to do so. Our research on provider perspectives on digital access found that the majority of providers want to be more involved in the creation and maintenance of their profiles. As you continue to expand your digital offerings and the ways in which consumers can access care (e.g., virtual care and online scheduling), accurate clinical data will become even more important in supporting the best possible patient-provider match and having provider panels filled with the right types of patients.
DF: Pandemic or not, providers should be at the table when strategizing about patient access. The service being offered is the expertise of the provider, as such they should be at the table in discussions about access to care, and honestly, can become a great advocate for guiding patients to adjust their behaviors in accessing care. Many years ago at another company, I was a product manager for a patient portal. There was a clear correlation between providers who spoke to their patients about the use of the portal to communicate with them and patient adoption. Ensure your providers understand the access strategy, the holistic nature of your thinking, and engage them in the task of their provider profile. Their provider profile makes a difference in the decision making process of agents and consumers when considering who to seek care from.
What do you think are some key metrics to monitor during this time and beyond to enhance patient access to care?
KC: It will be imperative for all health systems to listen closely to their patients during this recovery phase. This can be achieved not only through review of patient satisfaction data but also through the analysis of your patient search behaviors. Paying close attention to what terms your patients are using to perform searches on your website will give you insight into possible gaps in care coverage, the need to shift resources, and also the efficacy of your marketing campaigns. The second imperative is to listen closely to your providers. Understanding their needs related to filling their schedules with appropriate types of patients and their ideas for increasing patient volumes will most certainly help you to develop a recovery plan that works for your patients, your providers, and the health system overall.
DF: What is interesting to me at this time is that I am hearing from our customers that they are holistically thinking about how their community accesses care. They are looking at metrics across the access entry points. For example, what percentage of agent calls convert to an appointment, as compared to those who hit the website to schedule. At every point in the process our customers are thinking about how they can enable easier access to care without barriers.
Relatedly, some of the most popular analytics our customers track and my team’s favorite conversations to have are around funnel management. We typically dig into questions, like why are patients not converting into an appointment when they enter the booking workflow online or contact an agent? From there, we are able to help our customers consider potential causes. For example, are patients not finding what they need because the organization doesn’t have the supply to meet the demand, both in terms of providers who are clinically appropriate, but also in terms of accurate availability for those providers. Or you can look at where in the workflow you start to lose consumer engagement, for example we commonly see when non-consumer friendly language is used in describing appointment visit types the average consumer gets confused and leaves the page. As organizations look to continue to extend access to care during this time, as well as streamline the conversion process moving forward, monitoring metrics like these will be critical to identifying where opportunities exist to remove access barriers and fine tune the patient experience.
Karen Conley is the VP for Clinical Services at Kyruus, where she oversees the strategy, development and implementation of clinical services. Prior to joining Kyruus she was the SVP of Patient Care Services and Chief Nursing Officer at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Newton, MA.
Deirdre Fenick is the VP of Customer Success and Support at Kyruus, where she oversees the customer success, customer support, and data quality teams. Prior to joining Kyruus, Deirdre was with athenahealth for 17 years in leadership roles in sales, sales operations, marketing, product management, and learning and development.