Moving toward a 'new normal': How hospitals are convincing patients it's safe to come back

Toward the end of April and in May, states lifted restrictions on healthcare operations in place since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, hospitals are faced with the challenge of encouraging patients to seek care in places they previously were told to avoid and making sure they feel safe when doing so.

Chronically ill patients and even those with emergency medical needs have been avoiding seeking care at medical facilities. According to a poll taken in mid-May by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 48 percent of the 1,189 American adults surveyed said they or someone in their household had postponed or skipped medical care due to the pandemic.

Emergency room visits in the U.S. dropped by more than 40 percent in April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new CDC data shows. The average number of weekly ER visits was 1.2 million between March 29 and April 25, a 42 percent decline from the 2.1 million visits seen during the same period last year.

Patients' hesitation about seeking care in the midst of a pandemic means that healthcare facilities need to work extra hard to assure them that they are taking the necessary precautions to ensure their safety.

New York City-based Northwell Health conducted an online consumer reengagement study April 11-15 so that the health system could more fully understand patients' concerns, Sven Gierlinger, Northwell's chief experience officer, told Becker's Hospital Review. Of 828 respondents, 57 percent said they were scared to go to a hospital.

"A post-COVID environment and 'new normal' will require us to be innovative and flexible as we reimagine many of our processes and protocols," Mr. Gierlinger said.

At Northwell, several steps have been taken to reduce crowding in clinics and hospitals. Practice hours have been extended, patient appointments staggered, and telehealth services promoted so patients know they have the option to seek care virtually. Patients also are encouraged to wait in their car for appointments, versus crowding waiting rooms, Mr. Gierlinger said. They are told via text or phone call when their provider is ready for them.

The health system also has installed plexiglass partitions and changed physical unit footprints, when necessary, in its acute and post-acute facilities, Mr. Gierlinger said.

Healthcare organizations across the country are making similar shifts to make sure their patients feel safe to coming back to the hospital.

Rush University System for Health has instituted several changes, including removing reading material from waiting rooms and providing visual cues and markings to indicate how far apart people must stand while waiting in lines and in elevators to maintain social distancing, said Dr. Ranga Krishnan, CEO of the Chicago-based system.

Tacoma, Wash.-based CHI Franciscan has increased testing and screening and requires everyone in their facility to wear masks.

"We understand that many patients are concerned and are heeding stay-at-home orders carefully. That said, it's especially important for patients experiencing an emergency to seek care as soon as possible," said Michael H. Anderson, MD, CHI Franciscan's CMO. "There can be serious, long-term impacts for delaying care, and it's essential that they come to the emergency room as soon as they can."

Nemours Children's Health System in Jacksonville, Fla., is directly involving patients in the conversation about returning for care. At Nemours, leaders have asked for suggestions from the families of their pediatric patients.

"It is important to directly elicit patient and family perspectives about their fears as they seek healthcare and to ask for suggestions that would increase their comfort level in doing so," said Peggy Greco, PhD, medical director of patient experience at Nemours.

Parents have asked that specific information about screening practices, cleaning routines and patient volume restrictions be shared with them, Tina Arcidiacono, Nemours' administrative director of patient experience said. They also wanted details about managing their safety during clinic and hospital visits.

Nemours has now made sure that all those who make contact with families are providing the information the families need, including specific processes in place to ensure their safety.

It's also important to be transparent and spread information about safety measures outside the facility, so that people know it's safe to seek care at the facility in the first place, according to Mr. Gierlinger.

Northwell Health plans to use digital platforms, TV and radio commercials, print advertising and signs on site to spread the word about its safety measures, such as cleaning protocols and social distancing warnings.

The health system will also continue to encourage use of its urgent care network and telehealth programs so that patients can choose how and where to receive care.

"Arming patients with a choice, when appropriate, enables them to make decisions they feel most comfortable [with]," said Mr. Gierlinger.

More articles on patient experience:
14 hospitals where patients felt staff respected their preferences most
Cleveland Clinic's CXO: 4 important promises to patients
'Trust in healthcare has never been more important': UAB Medicine's 10 things that should never happen at patient visits



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