The COVID-19 pandemic has created upheaval across all industry segments and changed consumer behaviors faster than ever. Healthcare is a prime example: look no further than the quantum leap made in the use of telehealth by consumers and providers in just a matter of months.
Research shows the use of telehealth by Americans surged from about eight percent in December 2019 to almost 30 percent in May of 2020. More than 75 percent of U.S. hospitals and health practitioners now connect with patients through video and other technologies. Earlier this year, in response to the pandemic, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services expanded Medicare coverage for telehealth visits. Meanwhile, stock prices of telehealth companies are soaring.
While the immediacy and necessity of this COVID-induced trend is easy to understand, the prevalence and impacts of telehealth are far reaching and will likely create a new status quo for care delivery and patient engagement in the long term. For healthcare marketers and communicators, that means creating awareness and education programs equally as timely and innovative to engage patients and consumers in ways that build trust and more effective use of telehealth services.
|This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Oct. '20 Healthcare & Medical PR Magazine (view PDF version)|
Expanded access and ultra convenience
While the growth of telehealth has been steadily inching along for many years, now it’s moving at Mach speed. Many who feel safer at home during the pandemic—particularly those with pre-existing medical conditions—have already turned to telehealth out of necessity. But ultimately, access to telehealth services will become the norm and selected by choice.
Besides the obvious convenience, telehealth can have a dramatic, positive impact on overall public health. More Americans can access valuable, timely mental health counseling through telehealth services. And in many rural communities with a diminishing number of hospitals, primary care practices and specialists, telehealth offers a critical safety net. Long drives, sometimes multiple hours, and the accompanying time needed to take off from work, are major obstacles for people to seek care. Telehealth can help remove those barriers, allowing for more effective preventive care and screenings, early diagnosis, and treatment, while also saving costs.
Providers are also realizing the benefits of telehealth. Physicians and allied health professionals are reporting they can get more done with fewer distractions using telehealth in the right cases. And it’s only a matter of time that further integration of telehealth, electronic medical records and prescribing will create added convenience, adherence to care plans and improved patient outcomes.
Tips to communicate about telehealth
While telehealth is a hot topic, consumer understanding and familiarity with telehealth remains limited in many cases, and provider best practices for patient engagement are rapidly evolving. Here are some communications strategies and tactics to improve on both fronts:
Focus internally first. As you roll out telehealth initiatives, provide clear guidance and training to prepare internal stakeholders who engage with patients and are important brand ambassadors. From the Chief Medical Officer to nurse practitioners to administrative staff members, all should be able to communicate with clarity and consistency about the ins and outs of your telehealth program.
Keep it simple. Newbie telehealth users have many questions: How does it work? What technology do I need? How will my information be kept private and secure? Will my insurance cover telehealth? Make sure you answer the basic questions with simple, clear materials. Checklists, infographics, explainer videos and other tools can ease anxiety and help patients prepare for their telehealth visit with confidence.
A new website from the Health Resources and Services Administration, telehealth.HHS.gov, offers valuable resources for consumers and providers to learn about and improve the telehealth experience.
Streamline the digital user experience. Whatever technology platform or apps you offer, go the extra mile to make sure the user interface is clean and intuitive. From Gen Z to older Boomers, today’s consumer expects a superior user experience with simple prompts, user paths and functionality. Poor design, confusing log-in processes and frustrating downloads can put a quick damper on things. If the user experience is overly complicated, people will assume the same about your telehealth services. As more health systems, provider groups and national telehealth brands expand their influence and footprint, the more you will need to match the experiences they deliver.
Warm up the “e-bedside” manner. While telehealth has many advantages, creating a productive personal connection and demonstrating compassion can be more difficult from a distance. Training providers to make better eye contact, read body language and convey empathy is critical. An engaging telehealth visit can boost a patient’s confidence in their care—and your brand—as well as their likelihood to comply with their prescribed course of treatment.
Share examples and success stories. Sharing positive patient/provider testimonials can also go a long way in reducing uncertainty or potential anxiety about virtual care. Consider highlighting ways telehealth is being used effectively for both primary care and a wide range of specialties such as orthopedics, gastroenterology, urology, cardiology, pediatrics, and internal medicine.
Promote through integrated outreach. There are a variety of paid, earned, shared, and owned media opportunities to provide education and promote telehealth to current and prospective patients and consumers. Searches of telehealth-related terms on Google have increased by seven times since February, so make sure your organic SEO and paid search efforts are dialed in to capture active seekers. Use social channels to demonstrate thought leadership and provide educational tips. Consider holding Facebook Lives or a Telehealth Talk video series to demonstrate your capabilities. Look for interesting story angles to garner positive press coverage. And make sure your website and promotional materials highlight telehealth with rich content that positions your brand as a trusted resource, innovator and advocate for expanding access to quality care.
It’s time to telehealth
As the flu season hits and COVID-19 continues to create more questions and uncertainty about our nation’s healthcare delivery, the rates of adoption and innovation in telehealth will gain even more momentum. Smart healthcare organizations and communicators who get ahead of the curve will be well positioned for success.
Denise Aube is a brand strategist and Health Practice Leader at Crosby Marketing Communications.