With the spread of the COVID-19 virus continuing to be a top concern, patients are avoiding doctors’ offices. As a result, practices are experiencing significant financial hardships—one recent Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) survey found that physician practice volume is down by 60 percent and revenue has declined by 55 percent since the start of the pandemic.
There’s still a long road ahead with COVID-19, and the next several months will be crucial. In the immediate term, physician practices need to take advantage of the current financial relief programs and virtual resources such as telehealth and digital self-service. Moving forward, it’s important to have a strategy that addresses how your practice will continue operating in the new COVID-19 world—in particular, how you’ll re-engage with patients and get them to schedule appointments. Practices that take the time to proactively plan for volume and revenue issues now will not only be able to push forward but also provide an enhanced patient experience.
Virtually Getting Patients in the Door with Telehealth
During these uncertain times, prioritizing safety and social distancing measures allows you to deliver care with minimal physical interaction. Telehealth has been prominent and influential during the COVID-19 crisis for precisely this reason.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has substantially expanded opportunities for telehealth delivery. Providers can now use popular apps such as FaceTime, Facebook Messenger and Skype, and receive reimbursement consistent with a regular office visit. As such, telehealth has become a physician practice’s best option for interacting with patients safely and getting paid for their services. As a result, it has also enabled practices to increase patient volume through virtual appointments that require relatively minimal effort on the patient’s part.
To get the most value out of telehealth, practices must evaluate their current offering and work with vendors to either expand or enhance their capabilities. Practices can maximize their telehealth success by working with their revenue cycle vendor to establish a streamlined, end-to-end telehealth workflow. This workflow should incorporate administrative and revenue cycle processes such as scheduling, cost estimation and patient payments – eliminating potential bottlenecks, workarounds and time-consuming manual tasks. This will enable physicians and staff to work effectively, providing a seamless and positive experience for patients.
Plus, given how quickly patients have embraced telehealth, many will clearly want telehealth visits to continue after the pandemic. In a survey of 2,000 adults, nearly three-quarters said they’d consider using telehealth for remote COVID-19 screening and nearly three in five respondents said the pandemic has increased their willingness to use virtual care.
Creating Patient Volume and Engagement Through Constant Communication
While it is key to have a solid telehealth program in place, it is equally important to educate your patients about this service. Whether through email or text outreach, your practice should send consistent reminders so patients know telehealth is an easily accessible care option. This is a great way to familiarize patients with telehealth if they’ve never used it before. Remember to provide scheduling links in these messages so patients can quickly and easily book an appointment.
In addition, while patients will continue to have concerns about entering medical facilities, the reality is many of them must physically visit their clinicians to receive the appropriate level of care. To get these patients back in the office, your practice can utilize on-demand messaging to clearly spell out the safety procedures your practice has implemented. Examples of these procedures include wearing face masks during appointments and having patients wait in their cars until the physician is ready to see them.
A digital patient experience solution that offers these types of mobile reminders — as well as online scheduling, pre-registration and virtual check-in — can maximize your practice’s success by giving patients the benefits they’ve come to expect: convenience, safety and a seamless experience. If patients know they can easily complete administrative tasks online with little to no staff interaction, they are much more likely to schedule, register and show up for an appointment—especially in today’s environment. Patient experience solutions also give patients the ability to view and pay bills virtually which not only offers convenience, but also eliminates the need to deal with billing issues in person.
Time Hasn’t Run Out: Taking Advantage of Financial Assistance
As a consequence of COVID-19, all physician practices are dealing with cash flow issues. While some payment programs have been suspended, it’s not too late to apply for government financial assistance. Practices should work with their revenue cycle partners to identify and apply for the right programs so you can secure the necessary cash to keep operations moving – and receive as much loan forgiveness as possible down the road. Programs such as the CARES Act Provider Relief Fund and the Paycheck Protection Program are still accepting applications and can provide substantial assistance in keeping staff on the payroll. If eligible, your practice may be able to receive an upfront, fixed payment through the Advance Payment ACO Model, designed for physician-based providers that have come together to give coordinated care to Medicare patients.
Being Strategic with Scheduling and Staffing Decisions Moving Forward
A report by CNBC found that consumer healthcare spending fell 18 percent in the first quarter of 2020, as COVID-19 put non-emergency health-care services on hold. Once social restrictions are lifted and day-to-day operations are somewhat back to normal, practices will have to actively recoup revenue lost during the crisis. To increase patient activity, practices will need to re-engage with patients—getting them back in the office and stressing the overall importance of wellness checkups and elective procedures.
One strategy for increasing patient activity is to look back at scheduling records and target patients who are due for wellness visits or follow-up procedures. Researchers from Cigna who looked at post COVID-19 claims data reported a material decline in conditions requiring immediate care, including heart attacks and appendicitis, raising concerns that people are avoiding necessary care due to safety concerns. Urging patients to get these appointments scheduled for the summer months, when we can be more optimistic that COVID-19 cases might decrease, can help increase your practice volume. Book as many appointment slots as possible, even if it means taking appointments early in the morning or later in the evening. In addition, contact patients who have delayed or put off elective procedures—such as knee replacement surgeries or colonoscopies—as soon as CMS says they can be performed. Encourage these patients to take care of these procedures now, before they become bigger issues that need to be addressed more urgently. For optimal safety, consider administering pre-screening for patients coming in for elective surgeries to ensure they haven’t had any recent illnesses or questionable exposure.
Since COVID-19 has significantly altered consumer behavior, it is hard to predict how quickly patients will be willing to return to practice locations. As a result, practices will need to keep a close eye on staffing and overall operations, as the post-COVID-19 “normal” may require different strategies. First, it’s extremely important to make sure your facility is a safe environment for patients and staff. Make sure your practice has an adequate amount of personal protective equipment and consider routinely screening patients and staff to make sure anyone entering your facility is healthy. In terms of operations and staffing, leveraging analytics can provide helpful insights that can give you a competitive edge. Look back at your data from the previous 12 pre-COVID-19 months and determine which days typically have higher demand and plan staff allocation accordingly. Running projections with your cash flows is critical as well; these projections can help you anticipate current and future visit volume, and what adjustments need to be made to maintain financial stability moving forward.
Emerging from COVID-19 as a Stronger Practice
Learning how to run your practice in the new post-COVID-19 world will undoubtedly be a challenge. It’s going to require a significant amount of effort from a potentially minimized staff, and it may take some time before patient appointments are fully back to normal. However, this difficult time presents a huge opportunity to re-engage with patients and find out what they want from their post-COVID-19 care experiences. You can create competitive differentiation and gain market share by working with telehealth, capitalizing from an increased focus on overall wellness, and providing an engaging experience across all clinical, administrative and financial touchpoints. Remember that you can get through these hard times—and hopefully emerge as a stronger organization better equipped to address consumer needs.
Richard Lopez del Rincon is the senior vice president of office-based physician services at R1. Richard obtained his degree from the University of Miami.