Thought Leadership

Q&A: The Right (and Wrong) Ways to Talk With Patients who are Frightened to Seek Care

Sasha Boghosian
By Sasha Boghosian
posted May 20, 2020

Sasha Boghosian, Executive Vice President and Head of Insights at Revive, recently spoke with Advisory Board’s Anna Yakovenko, Colin Gelbaugh, Nick Hauger, and Meredith Crenca to discuss patient perceptions of care during COVID-19 and how health systems should be communicating with their patients about their current and future care needs.

Question: Revive has conducted several surveys (part 1, part 2, part 3) to understand consumers’ evolving perceptions of COVID-19. To follow this up, you just completed an additional survey specifically targeting consumers that had to cancel a scheduled visit or procedure due to COVID-19 or became in need of a procedure during the last few weeks. Can you summarize your main findings from the survey?

A: About two months ago, it became clear to us that whatever pre-COVID-19 communication or advertising health systems have out in the market might not strike the right tone. This kicked off our research initiative to better understand how people feel about COVID-19. Then more recently, we focused our research on consumers who had surgeries canceled, or those who need surgeries now. Five main findings to highlight from that survey

  1. Patients are paralyzed by fear of getting care in health care facilities. Nine out of 10 survey respondents are “somewhat concerned to extremely concerned” about receiving care right now. The headline is not surprising, but the intensity is. Furthermore, we expected there to be a difference in how people perceived inpatient versus outpatient facilities but they don’t seem to consider the difference. Consumers are not sure where COVID-19 patients are being treated and are therefore fearful of any health care facility. Most people are not industry insiders, and to them inpatient versus outpatient might not have a clear delineation.
  2. Because of their fear, patients are willing to delay care. More than half of the people surveyed are OK with waiting more than two months to receive care. This also extends to when hospitals say it is safe to start coming in. Many patients indicated they would continue to wait after facility reopenings just to make sure they were mitigating the risk of getting COVID-19 as much as possible.
  3. The clock doesn’t necessarily start running when hospitals open their doors. From a health system standpoint, you open your doors when you are ready, but that doesn’t mean your patients are ready. The general public is looking at different signals for the decline of COVID-19 than hospitals. When asked, the signals the public correlate with fading COVID-19 are case and death counts. These measures are more important to them than CDC directives, direction from state governments, presidential comments, etc.
  4. To overcome their fear, consumers need to hear how health systems are keeping them safe and they need to hear it often. They want to hear about the number of times surfaces are cleaned, the types of disinfectants used, the protocols in place to keep patients separated, how they will enter the facility, etc. There’s an endless appetite to hear these sort of details. Our survey indicated getting messages twice a week was deemed an appropriate amount by respondents. Usually this is never the case, but in these different times, people want to hear from health systems more often.
  5. Finally, even people who had surgeries scheduled are open to switching providers. As a result of the uncertainty and fear people are experiencing, they are more willing to switch providers if they think that it is a safer option for them. From our survey, 6 out of 10 people with procedures scheduled are willing to switch providers in the wake of this epidemic. Our sense is that they are not likely to seek out other providers but that they would be open to switching if they were to be contacted or messaged.

Q: You also conducted 13 one-hour interviews with patients who have procedures scheduled. Can you tell us what your main findings were from those conversations?

A: We talked to patients with a wide range of health needs, including people that could put off a procedure for a year if needed and people with more serious health conditions that can’t wait that long. All of the patients I talked to were looking for signals to build an image in their mind of what to expect from a provider. Signals like details on cleaning protocols, whether they will be sent back to the car to wait for the appointment, if they will be walked in through the back, etc. Different people might be looking for different details. For example, one person might want to know that they will not come in contact with any other patients, and another person might need their physician to call and tell them it is safe. But what was the same for everybody is having enough information from hospitals to create this image in their mind of what expect, and then that would help them determine whether they would go in or not.

I talked to one person who self-identified as a risk-taker at the beginning of the call and seemed really confident, but when we dug in, she was really nervous. What it came down to was that she would consider delaying care if she is not being told the right things by the health system and her provider.

Q: What do you think are some common mistakes that hospitals should look to avoid when communicating to consumers?

A: The biggest mistake hospitals can make at this time is putting out a blanket “we’re open” message. It’s not enough right now, and it is not going to resonate with customers the way health systems assume it might. Hospitals are going to have to work more on reassuring patients and understanding the patients’ emotions surrounding COVID-19. This is the time to really focus on communicating from the lens of the patient, to understand why they are scared, and what they are scared of, so those issues can be addressed.

Q: What’s the best way to communicate this information to consumers?

A: What patients are looking for is details. They want to hear what precautions are being taken and what protocols are in place. Not just that they exist, but the details behind them so they can have as much information as possible before making decisions about whether it is safe for them to come in.

A large part of reassurance is personalized messaging. Contact directly from one’s physician, either via phone or email, is the most effective. Health system staff also have credibility. From there, providers should look at what the appropriate messages are to incorporate into advertising and the landing pages of their websites.

Q: Since people are more open to hearing from providers generally, and are more willing to switch to a different provider with the right message, how should providers change their marketing strategy to potentially capture some market share up for grabs for patients without a scheduled visit or procedure?

A: There has never been a time where market share across a market has gone all the way down to 0% for all providers, so in that sense there is a lot of opportunity to not just to get back to where you were before, but to change your position in the market. Now, hospitals won’t have people’s phone numbers or emails so they have to reach out to potential customers through other channels. The main area to focus on is how your hospital has been preparing protocols and doing its utmost to keep patients safe from COVID-19. Another important piece is making it easy to get in touch with a person. Having a hot-line or something similar on COVID-19 landing pages and other communication channels is a good start. Hospitals need to be accessible right now, because that is what customers want. They need to be able to talk to a person about their concerns and hear an answer that is specific to them.

Q: How should hospitals balance marketing for demand generation and the sensitive times we are currently in?

A: Hospitals in general have a DNA that is different from most businesses, as they are in direct service to their community more so than others are. That has the potential to make the next several months a bit more uncomfortable. However, health systems have taken an enormous hit and the data is telling us there is work to do to get patients in the door and generate some demand. Now, hospitals should not focus on their competitors and be stating how they are a better option, or highlighting that they have less COVID-19 cases than their competitors. This is the time to have a united front against COVID-19. Hospitals should be focusing on themselves and what they are doing right, and then get that message out to the public. What are they doing to make it easier and safer for patients to access health care? This is, as we’ve talked about, what patients want right now. They want details and a lot of them. If a hospital ticks those boxes and then communicates them well, that should be enough.

*As seen in The Growth Channel, a blog by Advisory Board