August 2021 | Point of View

Managing patient access in an ever-changing world

The pandemic changed the patient experience. Healthcare organizations must now work to maintain the momentum to drive a successful patient access strategy.

Managing patient access in an ever-changing world

There’s no question that patient access has taken on a different meaning over the past year. Access leaders at health systems have had to pivot from longer-term, strategic efforts to rapidly putting new digital processes and capabilities in place so patients could get to their providers when face-to-face appointments were not an option. The need to support COVID testing, vaccination, and patient outreach and education efforts added tremendous complexity to an already complex situation, disrupting the plans that many organizations had been putting in place for their patient access channels and capabilities.

The biggest pre-pandemic challenges to patient access centered around: opening up schedules; reducing scheduling complexity; improving self-service capabilities to find providers and appointments; making it easier to request prescription refills; pay bills; get test results; and providing secure and easy ways to communicate with clinicians.

These challenges have persisted, but 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.

  1. 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.

    There is, of course, an undeniable personal element to building and maintaining the trust that extends all the way from your organization’s overall public perception to the one-to-one interactions between providers, staff, and patients. But there’s also a need to build out population health data and analytics capabilities so that providers have as much relevant information about patients as possible at their disposal.

  2. Make finding a provider more than a matter of zip code. There’s a lot more than location and proximity that determines how comfortable people are with their service providers—and healthcare is certainly no exception. 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. While geographic proximity has obvious conveniences, we are seeing its importance decrease as telehealth services and utilization continue to expand.

  3. 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.

  4. Prioritize the referral process. Closing the loop on referrals has long been an important strategy for reducing patient leakage. With elective procedures still bouncing back from pre-pandemic volumes (and facing further disruption), 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.

  5. 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 your clinical leaders, payers, and employer group constituents 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 of offerings.

  6. 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 more 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.

  7. 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.

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