The now normal, part 3: Proactive communications for practice success
By Alana Vaughn, John Dodd
As specialty practices continue to operate in the “now normal," both external and internal communication remains business-critical. Honest and open discussions with patients, staff and referral partners allow practices to re-establish continuity.
The more comfortable a patient feels about their safety, the faster they'll return for their appointments. Messaging can begin from the time a patient calls the office. An outgoing voicemail message gives practices a captive audience to educate on new safety protocols. Updating a website with new processes about what patients can expect during their visit is another easy way to communicate that specialty physician practices have patient's well-being front of mind.
Even as restrictions lift, patients, especially those who are immunocompromised, are still afraid to see their doctors. Proactive discussions quell uncertainties. Have staff email or call patients to walk them through the social distancing and sanitation changes they will encounter during their appointments. To reach populations that aren't quite as comfortable with technology, consider sending a letter signed by the physician. It takes time and money, but that personal touch goes a long way in establishing trust and credibility.
Patients in rural areas, where hospitals may have closed and travel for care takes longer, are especially at risk for missing appointments. Community physician practices in such areas should seize the opportunity for outreach. Such situations could also be an ideal time to advocate for the use of telehealth. If a new patient is anxious about coming to the office, start with a physician-led telehealth visit That helps make the patient feel at ease with the physician and the practice's safety measures.
Although certain telehealth restrictions were temporarily lifted during the pandemic, some of the lessons in patient relationships still apply. Chronic care and/or principal management programs, where specialty physicians call patients every month to check on them, are examples of continuing the telehealth mindset in the now normal. Practices should continue to think outside the box about how to move care in a new direction.
Working Towards a Common Goal
To progress care in a new direction, proactive communication with staff is also necessary. From the front desk staff to the medical assistants, to the nurse, all personnel should understand the role they play to make sure patients will be seen in a timely and safe manner.
As the expected surge in both new and returning patients continues, upfront and consistent communication between schedulers and practice administrators and clinical supervisors remains important. How will patients be scheduled? What considerations must be made when prioritizing? How will staff maximize their time to be more efficient?
What scheduling adjustments can be made to safely accommodate the increased patient load? Nurse practitioners, for example, could take some of the caseloads of returning patients, so physicians can focus their attention on the new patients. Saturday or evening hours are another option, but practices must keep in mind the associated operational costs.
Such considerations are essential for the health of the business. Practices tend to have bottlenecks at the beginning of the day or right after lunch, or when patients switch to different treatments. Understanding how many times they can turn over their chairs for treatment helps practices map out realistic patient loads.
Partnerships for Success
For specialty practices, many of those chairs are filled with patients referred from primary care. Re-establishing robust referral partnerships is also critical to practices' continued success. That starts with honest and open communications to make sure referrers send patients as quickly as possible. Specialty practices should proactively reach out to their referring physicians to inform them of changes they've made to safety and cleaning protocols at the office.
With telehealth appointments increasingly part of the now normal, practices should educate their referral partners on their office's new way of doing business. If those referring physicians aren't comfortable that a specialty practices is doing everything they need to be doing, they're not going to be sending patients their way. Education to rebuild those levels of trust and comfort and to start a dialogue is critical as practices start to rebuild their patient levels.
Pharmaceutical companies are another outside partner with whom it's important to have an open relationship. Patients may be facing economic hardships, like furloughs, layoffs and subsequent loss of health insurance. Pharmaceutical manufacturers offer payment assistance programs to help with the cost of medications. A specialty practices' GPO will work with manufacturers on their behalf to negotiate the best possible price for drugs, creating savings which can then be passed on to patients. Specialty GPOs have also worked with pharmaceutical partners to provide extended dating on invoices.
Whether it's the return of the estimated 80,000 cancer patients who diagnoses was missed or delayed between March and June 2020 or the arrival of new patients, specialty practices can use robust and efficient communications to inform their care plans.