Patients have come to expect fast, convenient and safe care when and where they want it.
Urgent care’s infrastructure was already in a period of transition when the pandemic began. Big players like Google and Amazon were moving into the market and patients were developing new consumer behaviors and appetites. COVID-19 proved to be an accelerant to that transition, incinerating archaic procedures and processes that otherwise would have taken a decade to fully purge from the system. As a result, the landscape, which historically has evolved subtly, of urgent care and other clinics is dramatically different than it was in March of 2020.
As we move beyond the most gripping phases of the pandemic, the technology solutions that played a role in delivering care these last 12 months will become so endemic to the healthcare experience that they will forever change patient expectations when it comes to how they engage with healthcare. The pandemic will become an inflection point in history where healthcare, notably the urgent care market, shifted to an enhanced patient-centered model of care that catered to rapidly changing patient preferences and consumer habits in the same way e-commerce, transportation and other industries have done previously.
For the on-demand, convenient urgent care market, the intense demand for episodic care driven by the pandemic led to higher patient volumes , longer lines, risks of crowded waiting rooms and perpetual miscommunication across providers of all kinds. Heightened fear of infection and confusion stemming from misinformation left patients scared to seek in-person care or enter physicians’ offices even when it was medically necessary. In conjunction with rising volumes and fears, the patients’ expectations of providers to engage with them, ease their worries and address these issues increased as well.
Digital engagement tools to limit face-to-face interactions were no longer a “nice to have” from the patient perspective, but an essential component of the care they sought. Telehealth finally received the mass-approval on a regulatory level that healthcare leaders had anticipated for years, and patients looked to schedule appointments with urgent care clinics that offered electronic queues and digital waiting rooms that could help keep them distanced and safe. For those who couldn’t find those digital offerings among their local providers, the CDC reported nearly half of U.S. adults delayed medical care — including urgent or emergency care — to avoid taking COVID-19 risks.
It quickly became clear over-communication between providers and patients was crucial in reassuring patients that they were being taken care of and they could receive care safely. Patients responded positively when clinics engaged with them often, empathetically and clearly stated their safety protocols and the new visit processes put in place. As urgent cares became increasingly aware of safety risk factors, such as limited social distanced waiting rooms or the need for constant and rigorous site sanitation, they implemented the necessary precautions to keep their patient populations safe. However, communicating those protocols to anxious patients was a critical step toward strengthening the provider-patient relationship, building trust, keeping patients coming back for the treatment they needed and facilitating care.
From appointment scheduling to pre-registration, urgent cares started using digital tools years ago to streamline their processes from before a patient arrives at a clinic to after they leave. However, more recently those tools became necessary to establish orderly procedures that kept patients safe and informed and enhanced functionality was prioritized by providers looking to facilitate more of the visit process remotely and electronically. Providers that had initially dragged their feet on technology adoption quickly revisited investing in technology solutions to better engage patients across multiple remote touchpoints around their appointments and increase their comfort and trust.
Search functionalities, web chat, e-registration and digital waiting rooms and queues were and will continue to be important components to get patients in the door and facilitate the care encounter. Providers have adopted more comprehensive pre-screening procedures, which have helped streamline clinical workflows. Although the clamor for telemedicine will quiet slightly in the coming months, patients have grown accustomed to it as an offering so the tool will be critical to keep in the provider’s arsenal, even if its practical application shrinks slightly.
Post-visit, clinics deploy text and email reminders and prompts to make bill-pay easier, manage essential care coordination and follow up and gather visit feedback data from patients to ensure the care experience being delivered by the clinic is a positive one. Those patient engagement metrics help to inform new innovations and procedural changes clinics might need to implement in order to facilitate seamless, enjoyable and high-quality care. Making it painless for patients to review their urgent care experience is vital for the profitability of clinics, as highlighted by a new study which found online reviews are increasingly important in healthcare decision-making, and those with better online reputation rankings are often the ones with more reviews.
In conclusion, patients have come to expect fast, convenient and safe care when and where they want it, and their expectations around the care experience, which dictates where they choose to receive that care, will only increase moving forward. Providers already had the engagement tools they needed to meet most patient demands pre-pandemic, however over the past year many successfully digitized their visit processes even further with a mix of new solutions that engage the patient as a consumer and make access to trustworthy, quality care easy. While this helped provider organizations address the unusual challenges of the pandemic, these tools and tactics will optimize care and ensure success to providers in the long-term.