While the biggest pre-pandemic challenges to patient access have persisted, the landscape of what's considered "patient access" has completely changed. Healthcare consumers who are now comfortable with the telehealth technologies that became an overnight imperative at the height of the pandemic are likely to continue using virtual channels, and the industry has been quick to notice the advantages afforded by these technologies and techniques.
Still, much work remains to be done if healthcare organizations are to create and maintain the kinds of customer experiences other industries have successfully established.
To shed light on the path forward, we've compiled the following seven strategies health system leaders should consider for driving better access to care in the current healthcare climate.
- Lean into building trust. Before the pandemic, improving access was largely about building loyalty and reducing patient leakage. The pandemic has highlighted how essential strong, trusting relationships with healthcare providers are to driving actions that keep people and their communities safer and healthier. This includes everything from the one-to-one interactions between providers, staff, and patients to the need to build out population health data and analytics capabilities so providers have on-demand access to as much relevant information about patients as possible.
- Make finding a provider more than a matter of zip code. There's a lot more than location and proximity determining how comfortable people are with their healthcare service providers. Giving patients access to a diverse set of providers and allowing them to identify demographic preferences beyond zip code can be important components of an enterprise access strategy.
- Make online scheduling more flexible. In most online scheduling processes, the provider must be chosen before date and time options are available. But what about when the most important part of choosing a provider is simply the convenience of the available appointments? As you focus on optimizing scheduling capabilities, building flexibility into how patients (and call center agents) can search for appointments should be a top consideration. In addition to searchability, consider implementing an open, direct scheduling option that doesn't require portal log-in to make shopping for appointments even easier for patients.
- Prioritize the referral process. Making the referral process easy for both physicians and patients should be a priority. One path of improvement is to establish processes for proactively helping patients make referral appointments and sending appointment reminders to help guide the handoff to the next stage in a given patient’s care, engaging with them to answer questions and make sure they follow pre-procedure instructions. As part of this streamlining, essential steps in the referral process—like prior authorization of services—should be examined for potential automation and/or digitization to help drive efficiency and reduce burdens on providers and patients alike.
- Evolve telehealth protocols. Understanding which telehealth services have worked (and how well) will inform any organization's go-forward strategy. As you begin to understand where telehealth is driving patient satisfaction and high-quality outcomes, you can work with all of your stakeholder groups to evolve and solidify your longer-term telehealth strategy, including making the case for reimbursement going forward. By standardizing which appointments work best as telehealth and which are best in-person, you can begin to build new appointment types into your access portfolio.
- Metrics matter. As you consider your dashboards and KPIs, demand and capacity trends (by care delivery channel, physician, and service line) will be among the most important metrics to continue tracking, especially as virus variants put pressure on your staff and resources. Standardizing reporting across the enterprise on metrics like time to be seen, fill rates, templated hours and utilization of hours, and no show/cancellation rates by physician and service line will allow you to target areas for strategic optimization.
- Consider drivers of health equity. Consider adding new metrics to your dashboards to monitor important factors such as health equity and the diversity of the population your organization is serving. Analyzing patient demographics and utilization through the lens of social determinants of health is key to proactively meeting the needs of those who may struggle with access to healthcare. The datapoints that emerge from this analysis can help drive tactics like providing patient transportation, deploying mobile units to certain parts of your community, partnering with community-based organizations, and making translators and patient advocates readily available.
As healthcare organizations continue to wrangle with market dynamics created by the pandemic, it will be important to evaluate and evolve patient access roadmaps and the investments needed to drive effective acquisition and retention strategies. Increasing standardization, automation, digital engagement and taking an approach that recognizes the patient as an individual will all be important drivers of success in maturing access capabilities.