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How the pandemic is affecting healthcare behavior — and how to start bringing patients back

Actionable highlights from new consumer research fielded in May 2020 by Klein & Partners and The DRG

Recently, our friends at Klein and Partners and The DRG published the second wave of their Coronavirus Omnibus research — How the Coronavirus is Impacting Healthcare Perceptions and Behaviors. The healthcare market research study was fielded in early May 2020 with a random sample of 502 adults across the U.S. (We’ll use “Coronavirus” throughout this article, instead of COVID-19, consistent with the research itself.)

We’ve been using the findings of this study to help guide our clients with healthcare communications strategy with regard to practices and messages that will be most effective in helping consumers feel safe enough to return to non-virtual care settings. The research sheds some useful light on consumer thoughts on telehealth, as well. Following are several of what we see as the most immediately actionable highlights to get more patients.


Consumers remain fearful and anxious — and hopeful and optimistic. All the feelings abound.

I have to admit, this one surprised me a little. We’ve been seeing other national healthcare marketing research on the current high level of fear and anxiety, which we have all also experienced firsthand over these past three months. I would likely not have predicted that hope and optimism would slightly outweigh the more negative emotions. Levels of hope, optimism and inspiration were all rated between 6 and 7 out of 10, on average. Loneliness, anger, fear and anxiety were all rated between 4.3 and 5.3, and all abated somewhat during the prior month. Nonetheless, these challenging emotions remain significantly higher among the women and adults 18-44 who comprise the typical health system’s primary audience.

While it is still necessary to provide reassurance to allay fear and anxiety (more on this below), it’s also a good idea to allow system communications to reinforce and spread the hope that consumers feel and need. Of course, the proper balance must be struck between reassurance of safety and optimism.

Consumers have moderately high anxiety that they or their family will get Coronavirus if seeking care for something else at a physical care location.

The good news is that their average anxiety about contracting the virus in a care setting wasn’t rated a 10 out of 10, but a six (6.09) out of 10. Of course, that’s still a significant hurdle. Not surprisingly, concern is highest for the hospital E.R. setting (7.28 average), followed by hospital inpatient (6.9), urgent care center (6.68), outpatient center (6.3) and doctor’s office (6.19). We’ve got our work cut out for us when it comes to reassuring patients; fortunately, the study sheds more light on how to do just that, below.

Creating and conveying separation and protection are the keys to easing safety concerns.

When asked what a healthcare facility could do to put them most at ease when coming in for an appointment, the top ranking answers were:

  • Social distancing in the waiting room (44%)
  • Seeing providers wearing masks and gloves (38%)
  • Keeping Coronavirus patients in a completely separate area (33%)
  • Being given a face mask and gloves when you arrive (28%)
  • Waiting in your car until time for your appointment (25%)

Similarly, the study asked which communication messages would put people most at ease prior to their appointment. The top responses were:

  • Explaining what to prepare for your visit and expect when you arrive and throughout the visit (47%)
  • Explaining how they are handling Coronavirus patients that may also be receiving care there (37%)
  • Explaining how they will maintain social distancing throughout the facility (36%)
  • Explaining how they are cleaning the facility (35%)

Clearly, we’ve got a lot of “explaining” to do. It’s not enough to offer vagaries like “We’re socially distancing and cleaning more than ever.” Systems need to give detailed information, and, ideally, show what they are doing.

You’ve reconfigured your waiting rooms? Installed sneeze guards? Upgraded your HVAC system? Implemented new cleaning protocols? Great! Tell patients the details — and show it. Better yet, walk them through what to expect in the entire experience from start to finish, in digestible sound bites, with photos. Some of the best provider communications we have seen in recent weeks do just that.

Consumers would switch providers for superior “attitude”, primarily, as well as superior access, safety, and to a lesser extent, cost.

When asked what would most likely cause them to choose a different provider for their care, consumers’ top choices included:

  • Another provider can get me in faster than my current provider (30%)
  • My current provider has been difficult to work with in getting me rescheduled (29%)
  • My current provider lacks empathy for my situation (e.g. had a negative attitude towards me, seemed rushed) (21%)
  • Another provider is willing to work with me on any out-of-pockets I may face to help me afford the care (20%)
  • Another provider has demonstrated better safety and cleaning procedures to protect me from the Coronavirus (19%)
  • My current provider treated many Coronavirus patients and that makes me nervous to go there (17%)

As in pre-pandemic times, you’ve got to be easy to work with and empathetic to retain patients and generate positive word of mouth and reviews. (Hypothetically, that’s more true now than ever, as patients are in a heightened state and likely to have even less tolerance for negative experiences.) You’ve got to schedule and reschedule people quickly. Do what you can to ease cost issues; the research sheds more light on this that we won’t get into in this post, so let us know if you want to discuss further. And, as discussed in depth above, make sure your safety practices are coming through loud and clear, including how Coronavirus patients are being treated separately.

Consumers are already signaling intent to continue using telehealth post-pandemic.

We’ve all witnessed the recent surge in telehealth. The study provides some useful data points on where consumers are with regard to this service:

  • One in 10 consumers (12%) used a virtual visit for the first time during the Coronavirus. This compares to half as many (5%) just a month prior, in the early April wave of the study.
  • Over a quarter (28%) said they definitely intend to keep using virtual visits for care after the Coronavirus pandemic is over. Not surprisingly, that intent is even higher among women, those with higher income and non-seniors.
  • Nearly four in 10 (39%) said that offering virtual visits in place of an in-person appointment when medically appropriate would be the most likely way to ease their current concerns about access to care.
  • Nearly six in 10 (58%) said that health systems need to keep offering virtual care after the pandemic.

The bottom line: continue driving your telehealth strategy forward, post haste. Get the word out about it. Understand the barriers to telehealth that are specific to your local market, and communicate accordingly.

Mental health, consult and follow up visits have been most likely to be changed to virtual visits. Sick care, less so.

Of the two-thirds of respondents who had experienced cancellations of various types of appointments, only 9% had changed sick care visits to a virtual setting, vs. 17% of follow up visits, 21% of consult visits and 45% of mental health visits. As Rob Klein points out, we could see continued growth in virtual visits in follow ups/consults and mental health. That seems quite likely.

This also suggests that we have some work to do in terms of educating people about the use of telehealth for sick care during the continued pandemic — at least for those patients who continue to be too fearful about coming to a physical facility.

The way forward

We will keep you informed as things evolve, in the future third wave of this study. For now, there’s more to this wave than we can reasonably report here, so please reach out if you have questions about healthcare marketing strategies and communications during the pandemic.

If you’re finding it particularly challenging to bring patients back (and who isn’t?) you may want to consider doing a local version of this study to understand how needs may vary among your specific population and ensure that you’re getting the most impact from your marketing dollars.

Contact us with any questions. Our team is ready to support or help guide you in any way with healthcare communications strategy and healthcare market research.

author

Sue Spaight is the Director of Insights and Strategy at Core Health, Core Creative’s specialized healthcare marketing practice. Core Health connects its clients with solutions that help their audiences live fuller, healthier, more purposeful lives.

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Video Discussion: How to help patients now

On July 23, 2020, we conducted a discussion with Rob Klein, founder and CEO of Klein and Partners, and our Director of Insights and Strategy, Sue Spaight. The pair covered key highlights of the third wave of Rob's national study: How the Coronavirus is Impacting Healthcare Perceptions and Behaviors. This study, fielded in June 2020, provides valuable and immediately actionable insights to help healthcare marketing and communications professionals gain the confidence of their patients, bring them back into their systems for care and understand how to support caregivers during this difficult time.
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