What Patients Want When Resuming In-Person Doctor’s Office Visits

By: on August 14, 2020

While there are some promising vaccine trials in progress now, the truth is that the country is still very much in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Officials are urging people to avoid activities that could potentially spread the virus, but there are many people who cannot stop seeing their doctors altogether. Because of this, healthcare providers are having to consider reopening medical practices.

In those situations, it’s critical that you’re doing everything you can to protect patients (and your own staff) from exposure during office visits.

That means following medical guidelines and adopting new sanitary protocols, but it also means effectively communicating new practices to your patients and enforcing adherence.

We surveyed over 500 U.S. patients* to learn about their comfort level with resuming in-person doctor’s office visits. We also asked about their preferences for which sanitary and safety protocols medical practices such as yours must follow when reopening in order to make them feel as safe as possible. In addition to speaking with patients about their preferences, we also spoke with doctors across the U.S. about their experience with reopening their offices and the types of precautions that they have implemented. We’ve included their experiences below.

Patients aren’t entirely comfortable with in-person office visits

When we asked patients questions related to how comfortable they are with seeing doctors in-person, the answers were not entirely surprising considering what we know about COVID-19 and how to avoid it.

Only 16% of patients are “completely comfortable” seeing healthcare providers in-person right now, and over half said they were “minimally comfortable” or “not at all comfortable” being in a doctor’s office at this time.

Patients are not yet comfortable resuming in-person medical office visits

However, there’s a very simple and easy software solution to this problem. If you’re trying to figure out how to see patients without having them come into your office, telemedicine is your answer. Plus, it comes with tons of benefits for both you and your patients—not the least of which is reducing the risk of spreading coronavirus.

We asked patients how they feel about using telemedicine during the pandemic, and their responses support this strategy. While only 35% of the entire sample said they had used telemedicine since March, of those respondents, 57% said they want to use it more often, and 12% said they want to use it exclusively moving forward.

Patients who have used telemedicine during COVID-19 want to continue

This is great news for medical providers who already adopted telemedicine as a tool to continue seeing patients during the first COVID-19 wave, and it’s clear evidence that those practices should continue offering remote appointments to patients for the foreseeable future.

Finally, we asked patients if they would outright refuse an in-person appointment with a medical provider who wasn’t following local safety requirements, and a compelling two-thirds said they would.

Majority of patients would refuse an in-person exam with a medical provider who was not following COVID-19 safety protocols

Overall, the message is clear: Patients aren’t thrilled about visiting their doctors in person at this point, but they’re willing to do it if it can’t be avoided—but only if you’re taking all the necessary precautions to minimize risks in your office.

Case stories: Quick adaptation during the initial wave

“When the executive order to shelter in place went into effect, I did not have a telehealth solution in place. Until the national emergency declaration in response to COVID, the payment and regulatory environments were an impediment to widespread adoption of telehealth. Simply put, it was not practical or remunerative in most geographic areas. When Medicare released its interim final rule on March 30, it included a relaxation of these restrictions and barriers to access as a means of ensuring that physicians could continue delivering care to their patients despite the need for physical distancing.

I was privileged to be part of the team at Modernizing Medicine that developed a fully integrated audio-video telehealth platform. My role, as well as that of the other medical directors, was to conduct telehealth visits with patients and provide feedback to the product managers and developers, who brought the telehealth solution to fruition in an impressively short amount of time. The message internally from co-founder and Chief Medical and Strategy Officer Dr. Michael Sherling was: ‘Our clients (physician practices) are hurting. We need to help them harness technology to stay financially solvent. Let’s get to work.’

In this instance, my employment in the technology sector helped my solo orthopedic practice succeed. I was able to hit the ground running, while practices who were on paper charts or who lacked the full spectrum of patient engagement tools that come with robust, cloud-based EHR and Practice Management systems may have been much less prepared.

Telehealth is here to stay throughout the pandemic and well beyond it. The inherent conveniences and efficiencies are too significant to be ignored by an industry so justifiably focused on cost control and delivering value based care.”

Dr. Veronica Diaz, MD
Director of Orthopedics at Modernizing Medicine
Orthopedic Surgery Specialist, Founder
Palm Beach Hand to Shoulder

______________________

“During the quarantine, I only saw existing patients via telemedicine once the ‘stay-at-home’ order was issued. I was unable to accommodate new patients because what I do professionally requires in office testing. However, we really did not receive many new patient calls during that time. Some people would barely even go outside, let alone think of medical appointments.

When telemedicine appointments were scheduled, I came into the office and saw them on my large computer while they were at home. This way, I could use my office landline to talk, which is a better connection than using a cell from home.

During the quarantine, patients really did not want to leave their homes. About 85% of my patients are retired (I’m in Florida) and they were in a great deal of fear. I was very grateful that we had the technology to ‘see’ them virtually from the comfort of their living rooms where they felt safe.”

Kelly J. Dyson, Au.D., CCC-A
Owner/Audiologist
Suncoast Audiology, LLC

For patients to feel comfortable, practices need to adopt new sanitary protocols

Here’s some good news: We know that as doctors and healthcare providers, you are already great about taking sanitary precautions. You’ve been well acquainted with PPE and good hand washing practices for a lot longer than coronavirus has been around.

But in the current pandemic, patients need to know that their doctors and nurses are going above and beyond. So we provided a list of common sanitary practices and asked patients in our survey to tell us how important they felt each one was. Patients said that medical providers needed to do nearly all of the listed practices below for them to feel safe with in-person office visits, but some were more important than others.

Unsurprisingly, the top two contenders were face mask requirements and enforced social distancing in waiting rooms, with the rest of the solutions being slightly less imperative for patients.

Patient preference for specific COVID-19 sanitary protocols in doctor's offices

One interesting element of operating a business in this pandemic is that regulations and requirements vary quite a bit from state to state. For example, face masks are only a requirement for the general public in 28 states, while six states have no mandate regarding the wearing of face coverings.

This makes determining which protocols to follow a bit more difficult for you—however, based on our patient survey responses, we recommend being overly-cautious here. It’s better to go above and beyond than to not do enough.

Case stories: Adopting new sanitary protocols

“We disinfect every chair in our waiting room, even if only one person comes to the appointment (because of droplets.) Every surface that the patient touches or is within six feet of gets disinfected with antibacterial wipes. We also stagger appointments 30 minutes apart, if possible, and have them come in one door and exit through another.

Additionally, all staff wear masks (N95) when in contact with patients or each other. If a patient comes to the appointment without a mask, we supply them with one (3 ply). We also have hand sanitizers at every point of contact (exam areas, check in/out) as well as antibacterial soap at all of our sinks.

We also have ‘clean pens’ that we either disinfect or have the patient take with them.”

Kelly J. Dyson, Au.D., CCC-A
Owner/Audiologist
Suncoast Audiology, LLC

______________________

“Our clinic has a waiting room, reception desk area, and four treatment rooms. The new safety protocol includes closing the waiting room, having clients enter and exit through separate doors (our break room has an exterior door so we converted that into a hand-washing station before walking straight to the therapy room.) Parents no longer wait for their child inside the clinic. Parents have the option to attend the session with their child OR wait in the car for us to bring their child out to them. During our sessions, we (and all other people in the clinic) wear masks, use plexiglass dividers, have individual air purifiers for each room, use gloves, as well as hand wash and sanitize frequently.

For materials used, we have a one use policy. This means, materials used are non porous and are cleaned immediately following the session. We are also staggering the appointment times so that we have time to wipe all surfaces and disinfect before the next scheduled client. Additionally, we are also keeping an ongoing discussion with our clients on whether or not they have experienced any symptoms or been around anyone who has prior to entry to the clinic.”

Hannah Milne, MS-CCC/SLP
Speech language pathologist, Owner/Director
Ohana Therapy Clinic

______________________

“In regards to safety, all patients and employees are screened and have temperature checks prior to coming in. We advise all patients to wear masks, but if they do not have one, we will provide one. For all my surgical patients, we test them for COVID-19. Once they are confirmed to be negative, we can proceed with surgery. For my out of town patients, we have them tested prior to flying in. We do realize this leaves a window of opportunity for infection, but this is the best system we have in place. We just encourage them to self-quarantine, wear a mask, and practice good hygiene.”

Nicholas Jones, MD, FACS
Plastic & Reconstructive Surgeon
Atlanta, GA

It’s important to inform patients of safety procedures

Our final recommendation for successfully reinstating in-person exams at your practice is to get your patients on board as soon as possible. After all, there’s very little point in going to all the trouble of deciding which safety protocols your practice will adopt and taking the time to train staff if your patients don’t know about it.

That means you need to communicate your new office protocols to patients as clearly as possible. Healthcare providers have an opportunity to reassure their patients by staying connected and overly communicating. Don’t be afraid of being redundant here. Utilize as many tools as you have to get this information out, including:

You’ll also want to make your new requirements clear to every person who sets foot in your waiting room. This can include strategies such as:

  • Adding a page on your website outlining your new protocols
  • Putting up large posters with instructions near your reception area
  • Explaining your new protocols to patients when they schedule appointments
  • Including this information in appointment confirmation emails

Finally, it’s always a good idea to have a plan in place in case any patients fail or refuse to comply with your new protocols. In these situations, you should empower your staff to refuse service and ask patients to leave.

Case stories: Communicating new protocols to patients

“I used my website to communicate changes caused by COVID-19 to my patients. This included updates to appointment protocols, as well as instructions on how to attend telehealth visits. The telehealth instructions and videos for patients have been extremely helpful in successfully conducting virtual appointments.

From time-to-time you get pushback from a patient or you walk into the examination room and the patient has pulled off their mask or is touching their mouth or nose from above the mask. The key to getting the message across is to listen and educate. As physicians we are in a unique position of trust and can help patients make sense of the conflicting messages in the media and in government and remind them of the importance of continued adherence to transmission prevention practices. It helps put it in perspective when I remind them that I have to interact with 35+ patients a day.”

Dr. Veronica Diaz, MD
Director of Orthopedics at Modernizing Medicine
Orthopedic Surgery Specialist, Founder
Palm Beach Hand to Shoulder

______________________

“We sent a ‘we’re back’ postcard to all patients. I was afraid if we sent a sealed envelope, patients might think it was junk mail. The postcard mentioned the new protocols. Our office manager also informed patients verbally when they called for appointments.”

Kelly J. Dyson, Au.D., CCC-A
Owner/Audiologist
Suncoast Audiology, LLC

______________________

“Since we have had an ongoing dialogue with our clients and the families we serve, we have given regular updates on the protocols we were putting in place via email, texts, conversation at the ends of our sessions, etc. Everyone has been very supportive and understands that we are protecting each other. I think the fact that myself and my therapists are very close to our clients and their families helps a great deal because we mutually care about ongoing safety and wellness for one another.”

Hannah Milne, MS-CCC/SLP
Speech language pathologist, Owner/Director
Ohana Therapy Clinic

If you have any questions about any of the software mentioned in this article, you can schedule a quick chat with our team of medical software advisors to learn more about which solution would best fit your business.


Methodology

We surveyed over 500 patients in the United States to gather the data reported here. We used screening questions to narrow the number of respondents down to 564 with relevant histories and experiences. We worded the questions to ensure that each respondent fully understood their meaning and the topic at hand.

The information contained in this article has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable.

For more information, see our methodologies page. If you would like to obtain the charts in this report, contact lisa.hedges@gartner.com.

You may also like:

How to Get Started With Telemedicine

EHR Strategies for Small Providers During the COVID-19 Pandemic

How Telemedicine Requirements Have Changed to Address COVID-19

Learn more about patient portal software