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Implications of COVID-19 for Patient Experience and Healthcare Brands

This pandemic has been a catalyst for a dramatic change in healthcare delivery, but it is also spurring new imperatives for healthcare marketing. The strength of a provider’s brand is inextricably tied to the patient experience. In fact, patient experience is five times more likely to influence brand loyalty than other marketing strategies—that’s according to a 2019 Press Ganey survey of more than 1,000 healthcare decision makers. Many healthcare marketers are happy to concede responsibility for the patient experience to the quality department or to operations. After all, marketers are busy minding the digital front door, not the actual front door! However, in this “new normal,” patient experience is taking on new importance. That’s because most everything about the way patients engage with the healthcare system has suddenly changed. Not only have traditional models of care been disrupted, but the pandemic has also left patients fearful.

The Fear Factor

A Primacy survey of 600 consumers at the end of March found that 63 percent have concerns about going back to their own doctor’s office. Fifty-three percent are fearful of visiting a hospital. For those who do return for much needed care, this heightened anxiety will be combined with new restrictions and unfamiliar processes. Policies prohibiting visitors remain in place for the foreseeable future, presenting a considerable hardship for inpatients and their loved ones. Cancer patients and others needing infusion therapies can no longer bring a companion to their hours-long appointments. Some hospitals and surgery centers are requiring not one but two coronavirus tests before a procedure. Everywhere you turn, patients and even staff will be screened for fever or other symptoms. Many practices and outpatient facilities are making the waiting room off-limits—patients will wait for their appointments outside the facility or in their cars. While necessary for patient safety and to prevent COVID-19 spread, these precautions could have a negative impact on patient satisfaction and ultimately on brand perception.

What is a Healthcare Marketer to Do?

Do what you do best: design and implement a thorough communications plan. Partner with operations to ensure patients receive clear instructions before they arrive at any access point for scheduled visits. Explain what patients will experience from the time they arrive until they leave. Get granular. Are certain entrances closed? Where and how do they enter the facility? What happens next? How do they ensure the safety of loved ones when they return home? A robust list of frequently asked questions should do the trick. Empathize with the anxiety consumers are feeling. Validate it and meet it with clarity and calm. Patients’ cautiousness and concern about infection is actually a good defense against contracting the virus. Emphasize how each restriction and change supports enhanced patient safety. Execute communications across multiple channels. Posting materials on the web or in social media is a start but an effective campaign should include some push notification like email, secure text, messages via a patient portal or app, even an automated phone message. Video can also go a long way toward preparing patients by showing people what to expect in this new coronavirus care environment.

The Need for Feedback

In this complex and evolving crisis, it is even more important now to listen to those who are receiving care to find out whether you’re meeting patient expectations. In a recent op-ed, Thomas H. Lee, MD, the editor-in-chief of NEJM Catalyst, wrote “…during this period of radical redesign, we should be measuring thoroughly and relentlessly what is happening to patients and what they are experiencing.” Don’t wait for next quarter’s HCAHPS (Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems) results to see if and how the patient experience has been impacted. You’ll want to quickly operationalize a way to target patients by email—ideally within 48 hours of their visit—and link them to an online questionnaire. Scaling polls for every access point would be a lengthy process and is not realistic in this time of reduced resources and increased marketing demands. Start small in one key area or service line and use the insights to improve experience across the system. By including patient experience as an essential element in your strategies during this continuing pandemic, healthcare marketers can protect their organization’s brand and drive customer loyalty. For more information about Primacy's COVID-19 healthcare research, download the white paper: The Impact of Coronavirus on Healthcare Business, Brand, and Communications.