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Q&A: How do we get patients to return to hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Estimated read time: 5 minutes

by Don Paulson

Published on 7/9/2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic advances, the health care industry is fighting to recover financially and get patients back in hospitals for elective procedures while still responding to a dynamic public health crisis.

In this Q&A, Don Paulson, Cerner vice president & revenue cycle executive, discusses the communications and revenue cycle management strategies that health care organizations should embrace to win patients back and stabilize revenues.

Q: What are the biggest challenges that hospitals and health systems face as they work to convince patients that it's safe to return amid a pandemic that continues to surge in many parts of the country?

A: When the pandemic began, we were all told to shelter in place and hospitals stopped doing elective and outpatient procedures. We taught patients that to be safe, they need to stay at home. Now, as we begin to open up, many patients continue to be concerned that going to a health care setting is not safe. Many patients who require care ─ sometimes very serious care ─ are still frightened about returning to a health care venue. They are hearing about the increase in COVID-19 infections, and there’s a perception that the mortality rate will continue to increase at the same pace.

To get patients reengaged with their care venues and care teams, hospitals and health systems need to radically overcommunicate with their patients using all the channels available. First, identify the patients who are at the greatest risk of having adverse outcomes from delayed medical care. Second, focus on patients who have the best chances of recovering from the virus. Both groups need to be walked through how the process will work when they return to the health care venue, all of the security and safety measures that are in place and have their questions answered.

Health organizations can use their website as a tool to communicate that they understand patients are afraid, but they are taking steps to provide a safe and sterilized care setting. Patients should know that in many cases, the risk of not getting care might be greater than the risk of getting the virus and they should come back to receive care. For instance, patients who are delaying their chemotherapy treatments because they're afraid to go back in the hospital.

Q: The governor of Texas recently reinstated a ban on elective procedures in eight counties due to COVID-19 surges. In your opinion, how can hospitals weather the financial impact of multiple shutdowns and restarts as this pandemic persists?

A: That may be the most difficult question. There’s always a cost in shutting down and restarting. If a health organization continues to lay off their staff without pay to avoid the additional cost of them being there without patients, they’re going to take hits to the bottom line. People are eventually going to say, "I can't keep coming back.”

It will be difficult from the stance of losing revenues, but it'll also reestablish the thought for patients, and even for caregivers, that it isn't safe to be in a hospital or health care setting even when they open again. It’s tough because the greatest hope in getting back to normal is building a sustainable, repeatable patient experience.

The key here again is overcommunicating and having constant repetition around security and safety. There might also be a need to talk to our government officials and explain the risk to patients if they don't have access to the care they need.

Q: How is Cerner helping its revenue cycle clients through the challenges of winning patients back and staying financially viable?

A: We’re collaborating with Experian Health to use data from billing and registration systems to identify patients who received care prior to the pandemic and determine who delayed follow-up care. From there, health organizations can communicate with those patients to get them back to the care venue. This is a great tool for our clients who don’t have the resources to reach out to every single patient they’ve had in the last two years or more.

Q: How have the lessons learned so far from this pandemic impacted the future of health care revenue cycle management, and what can hospitals and health systems do now to position themselves to be successful as we enter this new era of care?

A: From the revenue cycle standpoint, this is almost a culmination of the Healthcare Financial Management Association Patient Friendly Billing Project. The goal is to push all financial communications to the front end of the care process and make it as seamless as possible for the patient. We want to eliminate that burden and confusion of a patient having to figure out their copay, deductible and payment terms and then having 14 different people calling them.

We need to get to a place where we’re supporting a patient before, during and after they come to the health care facility. We need people there to meet them, to greet them, walk them through and walk them out. That's a lot harder to do for a small community hospital than it is for an academic medical center, but that’s where we all must strive to be. Services, like the one Cerner offers in collaboration with Experian Health, are helpful in providing hospitals with backup in engaging patients and improving their experience.

In a nutshell, if a health organization does all the things discussed here – overcommunicating about safety and security and making the entire process of receiving care as clear, concise and patient-centered as possible – patients should begin to lose some of that fear and return to health care settings. Hospitals and health systems can start to stabilize their revenues, and we can get back to something closer to normal even as we continue to combat this pandemic.

To learn more, read our “Winning patients back” white paper.

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