Text by Linda Comp-Noto
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, healthcare providers have had to adapt the way they triage, diagnose, and care for geographically-dispersed patients. Telehealth has experienced a huge surge in adoption over the past few months and has swiftly become a primary gateway to essential healthcare – with the U.S. market now expected to reach a value of $10 billion this year, surging from a mere $3 billion the year before.
Although Telehealth has been around for over four decades, providers are only now fully embracing the concept of delivering healthcare services through virtual means. Fuelled by stay-at-home orders from the World Health Organization and minimized hospital visits, this trend is likely to continue when lockdown restrictions subside. According to a new study published in The American Journal of Managed Care, Telehealth virtual visits are now vastly preferred to office visits by patients for convenience and travel time.
To keep up with the surge in demand, healthcare providers will need to streamline their digital transformation journeys, utilizing Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Assistants, to provide consistent and more effective patient experiences. Whilst these online solutions facilitate virtual care and remote patient monitoring, they will also become the primary avenue for clinicians to establish more meaningful relationships with patients to reduce anxieties and mental health concerns. With an alarming resurgence of the coronavirus spreading across America, healthcare providers will need to consider a range of additional communication methods to streamline care and develop an effective digital front door.
Opening the Digital Front Door
Due to the wealth of sensitive data involved, Telehealth providers have been slow to adopt omni-channel communication methods and upgrade to cloud-based platforms to comply with strict regulations. Until recently, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) restricted providers from delivering care remotely. As technologies and their security ecosystems develop, providers are now able to leverage a range of secure video platforms, mobile applications, and online portals to meet the patient where they are and reduce waiting times.
In front-office operations, organizations are implementing automated chatbot solutions to establish a strong first point of contact. Chat services are combatting backlogs of patient calls by scheduling virtual appointments, locating healthcare facilities, and guiding the patient to identify if something is seriously wrong with them – bridging the gap for those needing quick responses and a First Contact Resolution. Keyword search tools are also being leveraged to identify callers who may be displaying symptoms of the coronavirus and in need of a phone call from a specialist.
Conversational AI, addressing minor health concerns and general inquiries, does not require human intervention and can be processed to operate 24/7 and at very low risk – which in turn enables healthcare agents and specialists more time to provide critical care. By triaging patients for the most appropriate healthcare services, chatbots are improving a provider’s ability to diagnose more accurately, see more patients, and ultimately help patients get the specific care they need.
Human empathy critical in crisis
The catastrophic rise in unemployment taking place in the U.S. is triggering a new crisis – the rise of severe mental health. Unemployment rose by more than 14 million during the peak of COVID-19, as people were made redundant and lost their businesses, with nearly half of U.S. adults saying the pandemic has affected their mental health in some way. The psychological impact of the pandemic is likely to take a toll on the over 65 demographic in particular, whose daily routines have been disrupted due to social distancing measures.
Healthcare organizations are now tailoring their services to provide additional support to older and high risk patients to ensure they have access to medication, food, and necessities. By actively reaching out to patients, agents are delivering one-on-one compassionate care to ease the emotional burden of COVID-19. Able to mimic any predictable human interaction, Robotic Process Automation (RPA) operating in the back-office can speed up the administrative tasks, such as procedural-quoting and claims processing – thereby freeing up agents’ time to check in on patients.
With a new digital revolution set to change healthcare forever, providers will need to ensure they sustain empathy and compassion within their customer service. Nurturing a patient-provider relationship will be pivotal for those patients in high-risk categories and who may feel especially isolated. To ensure Telehealth agents can handle sensitive calls with high-risk patients, they require rigorous and regular training to relay empathy and compassion. Agents are taught how to carefully handle sensitive calls, and be the calming voice, on the other end of the line. Through nonverbal displays of empathy, such as direct eye contact and body language, as well as verbal acknowledgments of patients’ emotions, agents can develop a virtual presence that reassures the patient they are understood.
The future of Telehealth
Long after the pandemic has ended, Telehealth will continue to rise as the foundation of a robust healthcare strategy, fit for the new normal. Providers who previously deemed the omni-channel experience too risky will deploy a hybrid approach to healthcare offering a combination of on-site and virtual care to cater to the needs of different demographics. There is a long road ahead to recovery in the U.S., and healthcare providers will be looking to prepare for further upticks in cases by planning an agile and seamless execution of healthcare, whilst going above and beyond to provide the necessary level of empathy.