The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way we need, or want, to communicate with organizations. Fewer in-person interactions between companies and their customers has created an intensified push to digital communications. Recently I explored what these changes mean for the retail industry.
Today, I’ll be exploring how the new contactless standard has made the healthcare sector ripe for more digital communications – in particular SMS and messaging – and the key new digital use cases that can support the patient experience.
COVID-19 has created immense change in the healthcare industry, not least the acceleration of telehealth visits. Now, more patients are mobile-first, healthcare providers should be prepared to meet patients at their preferred channel.
If you weren’t already familiar, even before the pandemic SMS and messaging were effective communications channels — Gartner research showed SMS open rates were as high as 98%, compared to just 20% of all emails. Nowadays SMS transcends generations. Luma Health research shows that contrary to popular belief, seniors are using texting to communicate with providers. A majority of patients ages 65-84 are actively engaging with their providers via text and respond to appointment reminders.
The aptitude to engage with healthcare professionals via message is there on the patient side. And now, in the COVID era, the healthcare industry is ripe for SMS and messaging adoption as part of an omnichannel communication strategy. (Of course, as one of the more regulated industries, healthcare organizations will have to get on board with the legal and technical aspects of HIPAA-compliant messaging before rolling out SMS-supported initiatives).
Here’s how I believe messaging can make the biggest impact in healthcare:
Let’s start with messaging’s role in appointment reminders, sending links and reminders out for patients to have a screening session or to join their telehealth appointment. Patients are able to confirm, cancel or reschedule their appointments at their own convenience. But as a broader industry benefit, using SMS could help to decrease no-show appointments which are as high as 30% nationwide, and cost the U.S. $150 billion a year (each open, unused time slot costs a physician 60 minutes and $200 on average). In turn, this one change alone could see wait times reduce and patients get seen faster.
Managing wait systems is another great messaging use case. Even long after a vaccine has been found and distributed for COVID-19, I am pretty sure most people will still feel wary of waiting for appointments in crowded waiting rooms. Allowing patients to check in for appointments via a chat function, spend their wait time somewhere nearby that feels safe, and get alerted when their practitioner is ready to see them is a win-win for patients and the efficiency of medical operations.
Beyond the logistical/operational use cases of SMS, messaging has the potential to improve patient loyalty and satisfaction. If patients experience dissatisfaction with their provider, the main reason isn’t typically the doctor’s qualifications, experience or the diagnosis received. It’s a lack of communication by medical staff. Healthcare providers can proactively prevent patients from feeling this way about their communication by sending relevant updates to show they care and are committed to their patients’ health and wellbeing. These are some of the types of messages I would be thrilled to receive from my doctor:
Preventative care. If you’re in need of adopting healthier ways, how often have you left the practice after an appointment feeling energized to make a change, but then slip back into old habits over time? Receiving motivational messages to encourage healthy habits can be a really helpful way to keep patients focused on their goals in between appointments.
Recurring activity reminders. We’re all aware you only see the best effects from treatment if you’re consistent with it, but with our busy lives and so much to juggle, being consistent is easier said than done. By sending a recurring activity reminder, such as to do a set of physical therapy exercises or to take a medication at the time the patient chooses, it’s easier to keep patients engaged in a treatment plan.
Test results. Governments like New South Wales in Australia allow patients that opt in to receive their COVID-19 pathology results via SMS. They had been testing several thousand patients a day but despite the testing for COVID-19 only taking 6 to 8 hours from arrival of the sample at a specialist lab, the vast number of tests made it difficult to get results to patients quickly. Using an SMS notification solution, opted patients now get their results via an automated SMS within six hours of taking the lab test. This is another example of how COVID-19 was the driving force behind the change, but it’s clear how delivering simple pathology test results via SMS could become a staple of a strong patient experience.
Mobile devices have had a role in the medical sector for decades — the very first telephone pager device was used in New York City’s Jewish Hospital from 1950 by its clinicians. But the emphasis of mobile communications in healthcare in recent times, which has now escalated due to COVID-19, is enabling a bigger number of care team professionals to provide patient-centric communications. Healthcare practices can benefit from operational efficiency through deploying more extensive omnichannel communications strategies, but much more than that, they can build rapport, trust and a seamless patient experience, all of which will matter in a post-COVID world.