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Suzanne is chief commercial officer of SPH Analytics.
More than half of approximately 600 consumers (52%) surveyed in mid-March—the time when major metropolitan areas began issuing “shelter-in-place” orders and encouraging “social distancing”—said they had not been given direct guidance from either their payers or providers regarding the novel coronavirus.
Crisis situations often unveil the true strength of relationships between healthcare stakeholders. Amid heightened concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have naturally looked to their healthcare providers and payer partners to help keep them safe, healthy, and informed.
Yet more than half of approximately 600 consumers (52%) surveyed in mid-March—the time when major metropolitan areas began issuing “shelter-in-place” orders and encouraging “social distancing”—said they had not been given direct guidance from either their payers or providers regarding the novel coronavirus. A quarter of respondents to the eHealthInsurance survey said they had only received one means of communication, while only one in five said they’d received a few messages.
That’s a far cry from proactive communication that improves decision-making and fosters trust. What was needed then, with the toll of COVID-19 reaching epidemic proportions, was critical information and guidance. Yet only a mere 4% surveyed said they were receiving daily communications from a payer or provider about the crisis at that time.
Misinformation abounds during a crisis, and lack of expert guidance can lend to confusion and less-than-optimal outcomes. For example, if patients question whether a payer will cover COVID-19 testing or medical care, they may avoid engaging with healthcare professionals at all, and invariably put themselves at risk for an adverse event.
The good news is that it’s not too late for payers and providers to change the current dynamic and information flow and drive meaningful changes—such as behavioral changes—during this or any critical time. There’s also an opportunity to let patients know they are supported and the healthcare community has their back, even when in-person care is not possible.
The importance of leveraging a proactive patient engagement strategy cannot be underestimated, as staying healthy—and avoiding health risks—directly impacts quality outcomes.
But engaging patients in their healthcare is not necessarily an easy task, even under normal circumstances. Physicians are often overworked, and typically don’t have the time to develop relationships with patients as meaningfully as they would like to or allocate more than 15 minutes for acute care visits.
Providers are finding themselves especially challenged this spring—especially if they underestimated the swift spread of COVID-19—and are now scrambling to implement effective communications tools and issue guidance. In early March, a high number of physicians reported that the current COVID-19 status has had a severe impact on their practice: They felt overwhelmed by patients’ virtual questions and encumbered by the stress of limiting routine, in-person care.
Similarly, payers are overwhelmed because they need to make difficult coverage decisions quickly and be as transparent as possible to members. According to the eHealthInsurance survey, nearly seven in ten members (69%) said they lacked a basic understanding of how their insurance coverage works for coronavirus.
What the industry needs now is swift, decisive and smart action. Payers need to refine communications and engagement with members, especially those with high risk factors for COVID-19, such as seniors who need dialysis, or those with underlying conditions such as lung disease. To do this, health plans can employ the following strategies:
1. Better Collaboration. A 2019 SPH Analytics survey of more than 80 providers and health plans found that 35% of payers and 24% of providers highlighted the “willingness to collaborate” as the biggest challenge to working together. With the urgency of COVID-19, providers and health plans need to share data and regularly discuss their response, coverage and treatment approaches. Data should be readily available and easy to access at all times, as new information becomes available, and care plan modifications become necessary.
2. Smarter Outreach. Engaging all patients is a difficult task, and the healthcare community is already stretched thin. Solutions such as predictive analytics tools can make a huge difference by enabling physicians and payers to filter and stratify patients based on clinical risk level, social determinants of health (SDOH), and even level of engagement in the patient’s own health so that outreach can be personalized and made more meaningful to individual patients.
These technologies leverage algorithms that predict an individual’s likelihood of engaging in their health based on predictive engagement indices and different modes of communication (e.g., SMS alerts, email, phone calls, etc.). They can also be used to determine which higher risk patients are underserved (e.g., minorities with more than two comorbidities) and require more frequent engagement and intervention.
3. Purposeful Follow-up. The best way to fine-tune engagement efforts is through understanding how messaging and information delivery is impacting patients, especially during this pandemic. One way to do this is through online healthcare surveys, which can give payers and providers insight into how patients are faring physically and emotionally. Survey data can help payers and providers understand focus areas of highest priority. Both national surveys measuring the sentiment of health care consumers across the country as well as surveys of a health care organization’s own patients/members can be extremely valuable during the pandemic to help inform how to engage at this time.
Taking a proactive approach is essential because things are changing every day, if not every hour. Healthcare leaders have one of the most important jobs in the world, in ensuring patients are kept up to date on best practices, especially as guidelines, such as the CDC’s cloth mask recommendations, change or evolve. Forward-thinking health plans and providers are wise to consider how to advance communication strategies through advanced tools. Better collaboration, smarter outreach and purposeful follow-up promote trust by ensuring consumers stay informed, healthy, and engaged.