In the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic, healthcare professionals are working tirelessly to try to manage the increasing demand for services. Instances of the virus are on the rise, and the number of people who suspect they have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 is accelerating. At the same time, the need for access to care to evaluate and diagnose other illnesses remains. And stopping the spread of the virus continues to be a priority of the U.S. healthcare system.

To help triage people with symptoms and keep low-acuity patients at home and out of overloaded emergency departments (EDs) and urgent care centers, many health systems and health plans are turning to the use of telehealth services.

In fact, demand for quality 24/7 telehealth services for access to both patient advice and care, from both registered nurses (RNs) and telemedicine physicians, is producing an unprecedented spike in call volumes. In a recent two-week period, Carenet Health has experienced a 60% increase in overall call volume and a 1600% increase in COVID-19 triage calls.

Since this is the first time many people will use a telehealth service, it’s critical that, as an industry, healthcare gets the patient experience right, right now. It’s also a distinct opportunity to provide the consumer-centric virtual guidance individuals need in a crisis while helping them successfully transition to this type of care in the future.

Here are seven strategies we encourage all in the industry to consider—based on what Carenet is learning from our work with 250+ health plans and health systems and thousands of daily consumer interactions during this difficult time.

#1    Continue to urge Americans to use telehealth services. Our RNs and care coordinators are hearing the frustration in callers’ voices; they’re simply not able to get help or timely answers from their overburdened primary care offices. That is not likely going to change anytime soon. But health plan members and patients will only turn to telehealth if they know what’s available, how much it will cost and how to access it.

Remember to provide links to your virtual care services in multiple places (website, all electronic communications, benefit statements, email signatures, phone tree) so it is easy for members to get access when they need it. Make sure to list what information they should have on hand (such as member ID number) before calling or logging on. (Read more ideas here.)

#2    Proactively communicate wait times. Help ease frustrations as much as possible by letting members/patients know that as the COVID-19 outbreak increases, the demand for access to telehealth RNs and physicians has never been greater. Remind them (or have your telehealth solution provider communicate) that you are working to provide the highest quality of care, but are handling those with the most urgent symptoms first.

At Carenet Health, our Pandemic Response Taskforce has been actively optimizing our telehealth scripts and interactive voice response (IVR) messaging in real time to guide members to their next appropriate step more quickly, while helping to keep non-urgent needs out of the high-volume callback queue. We also offer ways upfront to get up-to-date information about what to do if they have been exposed, where to get details about testing and how to use the CDC symptom tracker.

#3    Ensure members receive guided patient experiences. Health plans and telehealth providers are serving as essential parts of the healthcare system’s COVID-19 defense system. Every person who utilizes a nurse advice line for guidance or chooses a virtual physician consult frees emergency physicians and nurses to devote their time to people that need more serious care for COVID-19 in a traditional healthcare setting. And every virtual care use also means one more person (with mild to moderate symptoms) can stay at home. But members may be confused about what to expect from telehealth services, and frankly nervous about the situation. Hand-holding (virtually of course) and compassion are necessities as individuals move through their COVID-19 and telehealth journey.

Another key point: Your telehealth service provider should be able to use the data they have about members to provide targeted, personalized advice based on demographics and other audience factors such as high-risk individuals.

#4    Emphasize key messages. It’s important for health plans and health systems to work with their telehealth partner to communicate the specific organization’s most important message(s) about the virus. Patients/ members may have heard conflicting information from government leaders and health experts about what actions to take and what care options are available.  

Further establish the credibility of your plan or system by providing consistent information and follow-up recommendations. At Carenet, we also recommend adapting your messaging for different regions of the country as needed—as not all of America is experiencing the pandemic in the same way.

#5   Remember best practices. Leverage healthcare engagement essentials that are proven to work, and use the tools you have in place for non-crisis situations to guide and influence healthcare consumer telehealth use and behavior during this time. For instance, take advantage of multi-channel communications, use social validation, find a common connection and be consistent.

#6   Include virtual mental health support. Your members and patients are likely experiencing stress and anxiety and other mental health issues related to the pandemic. Behavioral health support services are growing in importance, and offering some form of access to support via telehealth is important. This is especially true as in-person resource options are limited because of stay-at-home directives.

#7   Quickly adapt as needs change. Your overall objectives for providing telehealth services during the pandemic should include providing those in need with easy access to care and information, calming fears, reducing costs and directing them to the best next step. But the ways you meet those objectives may need to change as the pandemic evolves.

We may very well find that when this novel coronavirus pandemic subsides, the ways patients get care and information will have drastically changed for the long term. That’s one more reason why it’s important that we as an industry do all we can to ensure positive, successful consumer experiences.