Contradiction: Doctors and other Front-Line Medical Professionals are Heros / The Doctor-Patient Relationship is at Risk

In general, the public’s perceptions of healthcare professionals had a significant bump due to Covid-19. In a Deloitte survey, nearly 7 of 10 respondents had a more positive view because of how healthcare workers have responded to the coronavirus crisis. In just one example, a nightly ritual in New York of stopping to applaud healthcare workers continued at least 2 full months after the peak in the local death rate.

At the same time, the doctor-patient relationship has been frayed by coronavirus – in particular, by the necessary steps taken to keep patients, staff and doctors safe in the potential presence of the virus. As patients encounter medical personnel in substantial PPE or meet with their doctors via telemedicine, the special relationship is under threat. Good communication and empathy is the foundation for building the trust critical to the relationship, yet the loss of non-verbal cues in these new situations poses a threat to that very trust.

Why the contradiction, and what does this mean to your efforts to rebuild your practice caseload?

Most patients have little direct connection with the virus – 2/3rds of people don’t know anyone who has come down with Covid-19 (as of mid-June). Their increased positive feelings toward healthcare providers are in the abstract, built largely on very positive (deservedly so) media coverage. This raises expectations.

When these patients interact with your practice, in many cases after a long hiatus, there is nothing at all abstract about it. What they see are a lot of changes, and they accept this. But they also expect dedicated, compassionate, knowledgeable doctors and staff – and anything they perceive that does not fit this expectation makes it less likely they will come back in, and even more likely they will switch practices. The safety measures put in place make this harder to convey.

The good news is that there has never been a better time to create or cement patient loyalty. Here are some things you can do:

1) Train your staff: Your front office staff are the ambassadors for your brand. By 2 to 1, patients prefer to make/change appointments by phone rather than on-line. Why? Because they want reassurance that their needs are being met, that their fears are being addressed. Make sure your staff knows that addressing patients’ concerns is a vital part of their job.

2) Patients want a calm, proactive voice. If patients can be seen by telehealth, make sure that is clearly explained to them, and why. If they need to see you in the office, likewise, the why should be clearly explained. For telemedicine, be sure to get consent.

3) Make sure everyone in the office knows the details of how your practices have changed to accommodate Covid-19, from telemedicine to pre-visit triage to social distancing in the office, to even the cleaning schedule, and can explain the details to patients – consistent, factual discussion is the best way to restore confidence that it is safe to return to your practice.

4) Schedule flexibility: With many practices cutting back on appointment slots in order to physically separate patients, it may be harder for patients to get an appointment without waiting longer than they would like. Extending office hours earlier or later can accommodate patient needs and maintain good will. Some data indicates weekend slots would not be as helpful as would offering additional slots early or late in the day.

5) Avoid generalities and platitudes: Tell them what you ARE DOING, rather than what you intend to do. Patients assume medical practices are taking their safety seriously, but you can easily reinforce or undermine that perception with the wrong communications. Patients are aware of social distancing, PPE, and cleaning/disinfecting as the things they can do to protect themselves. Make sure your staff tells them what you are doing for them in these areas.

6) Continue to adapt: In response to Covid-19, stodgy healthcare institutions made major changes in a matter of weeks where previously they might have taken years. Patients have seen this and they like and expect more of it. There is no going back (on the change mindset).

Patients are under tremendous emotional stress, from isolation due to social distancing, to financial hardship, to the death of loved ones or simply pervasive concern about all of the above. Doctors who are proactive, who are seen as being supportive will go a long way toward rebuilding their practices. Doctors perceived otherwise will find many of their patients defecting to other practices.

References:

Many of these suggestions are supported by data from a patient survey conducted by Klein & Partners, a healthcare research and consulting services firm. This is a longitudinal survey, attempting to capture changing patient perceptions as the pandemic goes on. The latest iteration was fielded June 10-15. https://www.kleinandpartners.com/annual-studies.html

Pallavi Bradshaw, medicolegal lead, risk prevention at the British Medical Protection Society wrote this recent article on the doctor-patient relationship: “Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the doctor-patient relationship forever? British Journal of Medicine Opinion