The most powerful tool for bringing back patients is already in your hand: a smartphone
As if the pandemic weren’t devastating too many lives already, now comes startling news just how much it’s also devastating the livelihoods of healthcare providers. Since the start of the pandemic, a survey by the Physicians Foundation has found that 8% of physicians have closed their practices as a result of COVID-19.
- That’s 1 in 12 doctors who went out of business in less than six months.
- Another 43% of physicians have reduced staff due to the virus.
- And more than half – 55% – have lost more than one-quarter of their income.
It’s pretty obvious why, of course.
Three factors appear to be crippling healthcare production and provider incomes: a shortage of personal protective equipment, a reduced clinical capacity due to safety protocols, and patients’ fear of viral exposure in healthcare facilities. I can’t offer any easy fixes for factors one and two. But I can sure address the third factor through use of a tool that likely rests in your hand typically several hours each day.
What keeps patients away?
First, though, let’s look at the extent to which virus phobia is keeping patients away from doctors, nurses, clinics and hospitals. In the first ten weeks of the pandemic, emergency department use dropped by 42% nationally, despite a rise in patients presenting with COVID-19 symptoms. Early in the outbreak, New York City – which was then ground zero of coronavirus mortality – reported an 800% increase in at-home deaths largely due to fear of contracting the virus in hospitals.
Meanwhile, an investigation of electronic health records found an alarming decline in preventive cancer screenings of at least 86%. A survey of breast cancer patients in particular found that nearly one-third reported delaying doctor visits and more than one-fifth said they had delayed or canceled surgery, chemotherapy or radiation visits – all due to COVID apprehensions. As one oncologist said to me recently, “Patients are coming to see me much later and much sicker.”
So as the masses spend less time with doctors and nurses these days, they are spending gobs more time in two other places: On the internet and on their smartphones. In the first few weeks of the stay-at-home lockdown last spring, internet usage soared, while use of phone apps remained relatively flat. However, only weeks later, one survey found that texting had jumped 37% and video calling from smartphones had risen 32%.
Indeed, a case study published in the official journal of the British Association of Dermatologists reported that in a single month, patients were experiencing new eruptions of acne on one side of their faces. Yep, you guessed it. All those patients, whose mean age was 21 years, reported an increase of about 37% in smartphone use. The investigators concluded that booming smartphone use was likely the cause of the unprecedented pimple proliferation.
Patients are using smartphones for videos and social media. Shouldn’t doctors?
By now, you probably know where I’m headed. My dear grandmother, who lived in the country and kept chickens and a milk cow, had a saying: Put the hay down where the horses are. If patients are already on smartphones in record numbers, why not work to bring them back to clinics and hospitals with smartphones?
Let me provide several simple examples. I work with a physician in Arizona who publicly promises to call each and every new patient within 24 hours of booking first-time appointments. His staff politely insists that new patients provide their cell numbers so that the good doctor can ring them from his smartphone on his commute between home and office.
As you can imagine, his calls win over new patients immediately. Moreover, they have dramatically slashed appointment no-shows. In addition, since starting and promoting this habit several years ago, he’s seen his practice grow every year since and is having another strong year this year, despite the new coronavirus. And this is in a state experiencing some of the highest COVID rates in the country.
Let’s not also overlook the extraordinary videographic capabilities of a smartphone. Take Dr. Emily Schneider, for example, an OB-GYN in a 10-physician practice in Denver. As soon as the national lockdown started, Dr. Schneider and team recorded a smartphone a video that walks patients through coronavirus safeguards they will experience on each clinic visit. Now posted on the practice’s website and YouTube, in a mere one minute and 17 seconds, the video persuasively illustrates COVID safety precautions in place, from screening questions, to temperature checks, to mask wearing requirements for both patients and providers alike.
We should remind ourselves daily that most of the public are not scientists and that as a result, public fears spring from a lack of knowledge. Heck, if virologists and epidemiologists don’t yet fully understand the new coronavirus, why should we be surprised by patients’ angst? I know plenty of providers who have cleverly turned to their smartphones to punch through that wall of mystery and angst with a battering ram of patient education. Some are doing it by posting smartphone videos to websites and YouTube, others through regular texting with patients, and others through just giving patients their cell numbers.
Yes, all this sounds like extra work in a time when healthcare providers are more stretched, strained, and stressed than ever. But so is the world at large. Trying times call for trying new things. Happily, even though we’re struggling through perhaps the worst pandemic in a century, that good news is that we’ve never been better equipped to face it with so much technology and power – right at our fingertips.