Preparing for the ‘Old Normal’: How to Handle More In-Person Patient Visits Again

April 26, 2021
Marc Helberg

Healthcare providers can consider these strategies when developing a plan to transition to more frequent in-office treatment.

As the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines becomes increasingly effective, healthcare providers are preparing for a return to some sense of “normalcy,” including in-person patient visits. It’s easy to understand why: Most healthcare practices reported negative financial impacts due to the pandemic and attributed that to access to care.

While it’s tempting to advertise in-person procedures at the first available opportunity, many patients remain skeptical about safety. COVID-19 cases are trending upward worldwide with new mutations of the virus, so how do healthcare providers inspire patient confidence while also providing the safest treatment experience possible?

Using technology to take a conscientious approach to patient care is a great place to start. Consider offering permanent telehealth treatment options and remember that comfort levels vary. The truth is, some patients may never feel comfortable returning to in-person care unless it is absolutely necessary.

In-Person Patient Care Solutions for the Future

As more patients return to doctors’ offices and other facilities, providers must ensure a low risk of COVID-19 transmission. Dental offices provide an example of low transmission rates in a somewhat “high-risk” setting. After all, dental patients must appear in-office for dental work.

According to a study from the American Dental Association, less than 1% of dentists nationwide tested positive for COVID-19. These findings came shortly after dentistry was labeled as a high-risk occupation for COVID-19 exposure. Dentists largely attributed their “success” to strict adherence to safety measures, including face shields, masking, and more. In fact, dentists seemed to be ahead of the curve pre-pandemic: Most dentist office equipment has been wrapped in plastic and technicians have been wearing masks for quite some time now.

Although virtual care services were essential to decreasing transmission rates last year, doctors must perform some procedures on-site. To meet heightened safety concerns, healthcare providers should revisit their infection control procedures and reduce the number of patient touch points. Doctors can also use advanced analytics, including artificial intelligence and machine learning on various platforms, to separate the sickest patients from others and to detect changes in a patient’s condition during the visit.

Best Practices for Flexibility and Resilience in 2021

In order for healthcare providers (and patients) to recover in 2021, it’s important to prioritize both safety and profitability. This requires assessing which aspects of patient care can be handled virtually. During this process, providers can also measure which services are the most profitable and continue to maintain financial stability.

One looming question that healthcare providers face this year is reimbursement for telehealth appointments. Some critics of virtual care claim this is the end of telehealth, while others stipulate that the future of telemedicine remains uncertain. The pandemic created a public health emergency, so federal and state agencies expanded access to telehealth visits. This might fall into limbo as the pandemic dissipates.

Healthcare providers also worry about profitability. While reducing expenditures seems like the obvious answer, this may actually deter patients from visiting. Instead, medical facilities should focus on the patient experience and pay closer attention to customer service, follow-up care, and technologies geared toward convenience. By making care more accessible and centered on the patient, healthcare providers can improve their financial standing and patients’ health.

Leaders facilitating an effective return to in-person treatments can use technology to further this process safely. Here are a few strategies to consider when developing a plan to transition to in-person treatment:

1. Distinguish which treatments require in-person care.

Not every procedure requires in-person treatment, so figure out which patients require direct care versus virtual. According to The Harris Poll, roughly 65% of patients will take advantage of telehealth even after the pandemic ends and most people are comfortable with virtual appointments. Still, many patients appreciate the option of in-person care, so offer both choices.

2. Meet patients where they are in terms of technology.

A lot of virtual appointments require a strong internet signal and a functioning smartphone. While many people have access to these devices, low-income patients or those in rural areas may face blocks to treatment without these tools. These patients rely on simple phone calls and in-person appointments to get the care they need, so meet them where they are.

3. Experiment with technology first.

The success of patient care technology hinges on patient engagement. Before incorporating different technologies across the board, providers should experiment with smaller groups of patients to determine what works. Patient demands evolve with technology, and self-service tools are more important than ever. For example, patients certainly care about treatment results, but they also expect phenomenal customer service and high-tech interfaces.

4. Invest in technology training.

As healthcare providers expand their telehealth networks, staff members need proper training to handle the demand. New York recently introduced a telehealth bill that included continuing education of professionals working with telehealth technology. Providers can implement a similar program on a micro level to prepare staff for the future.

As more and more providers shift back to in-person patient care, it’s important to understand which patients can be treated as such. Once you understand the difference, you can move forward with better technologies and safety procedures to reassure in-person patients while catering to those who would rather stay home.

Marc Helberg is the managing vice president at the Philadelphia office of Pariveda Solutions, a consulting firm driven to create innovative, growth-oriented, and people-first solutions.