Prioritizing Patient Experience During COVID-19 Wave 2: Staff Morale, Gaps in Care, and Planning for the COVID-19 Vaccine

Last week, NGPX (Next Generation Patient Experience) held their 2020 conference virtually and Relatient had the opportunity to participate in a couple of different sessions. Perhaps one of the most notable was a roundtable discussion facilitated by Relatient CEO, Michele Perry. Perry asked a group of five different patient experience executives for their insights into COVID-19, including how the current wave of infections differs from the first wave, how its affecting providers, staff, patients, and families, and how they’re planning for the COVID-19 vaccine. 

The group of patient experience leaders was gracious in their responses and transparent as they discussed the challenges facing their organizations. They echoed similar concerns and strategies for employee morale, patient and family communication, and gaps in care. Here’s a look at the major themes of their discussion. 

Staff and Provider Morale Is The Worst It’s Been 

Perhaps the hardest part of the current wave of infections as it relates to morale is simply how long medical staff and providers have been in this fight. They’re suffering all the same losses as everyone else, missed events and family gathers, loneliness, isolation, and more but they’re also watching firsthand as patients grapple with the virus and oftentimes, lose the battle. What worked in the early days of the pandemic to raise spirits and bring small doses of cheer to tired and weary staff are no longer welcome. 

Hospitals and healthcare systems are switching their strategies, letting go of their catchy internal campaigns and calling it what it is: loss, trauma, and grief. 

“We’re not sugar-coating anything anymore,” said one patient experience officer from a health system in Texas. Others echoed the same as they described how they’re extending access to counselors, virtual SCHWARTZ rounds, and even EMDR therapy to help their staff process and manage the trauma they’ve been experiencing throughout the pandemic and will continue to endure even as the COVID-19 makes it way to the most vulnerable populations and then to the general public. 

We were surprised that the focus of a patient experience conversation so quickly turned internal but upon further examination, it makes sense. The job of a patient experience officer goes far beyond making patients happy, it’s ensuring patients and their families are given the information and tools they need to make care decisions, understand what to expect, and feel heard by the care team. Likewise, ensuring that staff and providers have the tools and resources they need to communicate effectively and help their patients and families navigate the stress, grief, and fatigue of a patient’s care is critical to ensuring a good patient experience. 

The COVID-19 Vaccine is Still a Mystery

The hospitals and systems represented in the roundtable were all planning to receive initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccine soon, though they all acknowledged that while there is a small team working on the logistics around vaccine distribution, it’s a mystery to the rest of their organizations. This hasn’t stopped their communities from flooding phone lines with questions about how to qualify, when it will arrive, how someone can plan to get vaccinated, etc. “It puts us in a tough position, ever since the announcement was made that we’d be receiving the vaccine, we’re getting phone calls from patients but we don’t have answers for them yet,” explained another roundtable participant from a Tampa, FL hospital. 

Patient Experience Remains a Priority But Harder to Report 

It would be easy to take on the “we’re just keeping our heads above water” mentality and let patient experience metrics slide but this remains a top priority to hospitals and health systems even as they tackle unprecedented challenges in the patient experience. This said, measuring and reporting patient satisfaction is more difficult right now as patient emotions are heightened and patients and families are easily angered. As one officer put it, “emotional temperatures are high, emotional bank accounts are in the negative.” 

They went on to explain that while they continue to measure and pass on data to their providers and staff, comments need a higher level of filtering right now. Providers and staff are watching patients die every day, and not just from COVID-19. Many have been too afraid to come to the hospital even though they are experiencing serious, acute symptoms from medical conditions that span the range of cancer, cardiac, diabetes, neurological, and more. “Patients will come,” explained one participant, “but they’re really highly acute and coming in large volumes.” 

In other words, now isn’t the time to tell a provider that a patient didn’t like that he wore a mask during their appointment. It’s not that patient opinions aren’t important, but there’s a level of subjective filtering that’s required right now so that the feedback that is funneled to providers and staff represents the more representative patient experiences and the ones that should be made high priorities. 

How Does The Outpatient Experience Fit? 

While our NGPX conversation focused primarily on the inpatient experience, we considered how the outpatient experience fits into the picture—can it be part of the solution? We think so. Not THE solution, but there are a few key things that can help. 

Use your existing tools to keep your patients informed. 

Use your mass messaging software to distribute information to patients so they are informed and can make good medical decisions for themselves and their families. This could be vaccine information, how to access care, or messaging that says “it’s safe to come see us”. Helping manage patients in the outpatient setting can help lower the inpatient volumes and free beds for those who need them. 

If you paused your appointment reminders at one point in time, make sure they’re turned on and active for all your outpatient locations. 

We saw several medical offices turn off their reminders in the early days of the pandemic when they closed select locations. If you did the same thing, be sure all your locations were turned back on when you opened back up. One of the easiest and best things medical providers can do in the outpatient setting to manage the inpatient volumes and acuity of patients is to make sure patients are current in their care and seen as-scheduled. 

Manage your no-shows. 

Great patient engagement tools are highly effective in minimizing patient no-shows but we’ve yet to see a medical practice achieve zero no-shows. Automated no-show reengagement can help by ensuring that patients that no-show for their appointments are added back to the schedule in a timely manner so their conditions don’t continue to deteriorate or they fall behind in preventive and follow-up care.