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We have all received an abundance of emails from Doctors, retail outlets, online shopping, shipping services, etc. The stream of messages regarding COVID-19 seems endless. As we enter into the next 30 days of COVID-19 uncertainty, I am writing this not as a Doctor, and certainly not as a practice management expert, which I am not. But I am writing this rather as a patient – a patient who has received many messages from health care providers about COVID-19. I have learned from these messages about what to do and what not to do during this time, based on what I find to be effective and helpful messaging that will make me return to those practitioners and services once we begin to move forward. This is my advice to practitioners based on my own experiences during the past few weeks.

I love our dentist and she is usually at the leading edge with digital messaging. She has been voted a top dentist in our area for more than 10 years, in part due to her excellent communications. I had a routine appointment last week, and I received 2 emails and 2 texts confirming my appointment. I knew that the CDC had advised against routine dental care, so after the second set of messages, I called the office. Sure enough, the voice message said the office was closed except for urgent care. The message gave an emergency number but it did not say what to do to reschedule any routine care.

Lessons learned: It is frustrating for patients to receive mixed messages. Do not send out previously arranged appointment confirmations if your office is not seeing those appointments. Be sure to cancel all of those pre-arranged digital and post-card style messages and send out a message acknowledging that the patient had an appointment that will need to be rescheduled. List the CDC guidance as to the reason why. Tell the patient if you will be automatically reappointing or if they will need to call the office after a certain date. End with a reassuring message as to how we will all get through this working together.

I love my primary care physician as well, and I have been a patient for over 25 years because she and her practice is amazing. But I have not received a single message from the practice about COVID-19. So I looked on the web site, and they are open for both routine and urgent care. The web site does provide advice about how to call ahead and how to present to the office if you think you have been exposed to COVID-19.  The website also details that they are now offering telemedicine if patients would prefer not to come to the office.

Lessons learned: I expected more from this site such as a list of symptoms of COVID-19, and when I should call and when I should go directly to the ER. It would have been nice to have some resources on the site such as how to wash your hands, links to how to use hand sanitizer, how to stay healthy, should we be wearing masks, etc. I was looking for the practice’s web site to be a source of information, even though I did not need to see the Doctor right now.

I have seen a lot of messages on many of our colleagues’ web sites stating, “We are  Closed.” The smaller print then goes on to state that the office is available for urgent care. What I don’t like about this message, is the take away is negative. The only thing that I may remember when I go to book my next appointment is that the office was closed when I was looking for help. I may not even read the smaller text and just move on to another practice’s web site after seeing the word closed.

Lessons learned: Turn these “closed” messages into more positive ones such as, “In this uncertain times, we are OPEN to care for you during any urgent or emergency eye care needs. We continue to provide care for situations such as [LIST]. If you are uncertain if you need to be seen, we now offer telemedicine services that can [LIST]. If you need a refill on medication, [LIST], or need to order additional contact lenses, we can assist with that by [LIST]. And if you need an emergency pair of glasses, we are here to help as well.” End on a positive note about how you are available to help with their needs during these unusual times and how we will all get through this by working together. 

Other Communication Ideas:

  • With patient permission, post stories about the urgent care/emergencies that you have handled with an emphasis on how the care impacted the patient. Make it a feel-good story that patients will remember. We all need to read good news at every opportunity these days.
  • Highlight your staff every chance you get. This gives a face and a voice of reality and concern to your practice. Depending on the type of practice and your population, consider having staff post about ways that they have been able to juggle working from home with online schooling with their children. Have them talk about how this type of special lens or lens treatment has been helpful during this time for them or their child, or even how much they love their daily disposable contact lenses and how cleaning contact lenses is one less thing to worry about.
  • Post about your staff and how you have had to reduce hours due to the CDC guidelines, but are taking care of everyone and helping each of them through this time. Showing how you care for your staff during this time really resonates with patients right now as they are facing their own job uncertainties. This factor is huge for people in their 20-40’s in terms of future brand loyalty. Look at examples from large retailers from which you have received messages and use those to build on for your own circumstances.
  • Patients love the stories of companies that are stepping up to provide crucial supplies needed to fight COVID-19. If you have donated masks, or even supported local restaurants by purchasing curbside takeout for the office, be sure to highlight these actions. Highlight actions by local partners/groups that are also giving back to the community during this time, and be sure to tag them so that they may help spread your posted messages as well.
  • Take this time to go through all of your social media sites and your messages and make sure that everything is consistent and reflects your position as an essential health care provider. Put some helpful information on your sites that patients might seek regarding things like is it safe to wear contact lenses during this time, etc.
  • Talk about new training that you and your staff have completed to be ready to even better serve your patients when back to a full schedule. Invest in courses for your staff. Many are free right now, and most others are at a very nominal cost.
  • Post and/or send out updates about the status of the office and when you expect to start rescheduling and if you will call patients or if they will need to call the office. 
  • Post patient stories (with permission as needed) about how good vision is essential for the quality of life. Highlight your practice specialties such as contact lenses, myopia management, TBI, etc.
  • Let your patients know how you have been taking extensive actions to safeguard your patients and your staff by managing the risk of infection within the practice.

As the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic together, use your time and your communications to reassure your patients that you are here for them now and in the times ahead. Ask for their support as we all navigate through this time of uncertainty together. At the other end of this time period, patients will be looking to find Doctors who care for them, their children, their own staff, and the world as a whole. Use your communications to remind patients that no matter how challenging each day has been, every day brings new possibilities and new hope and that your practice is filled with strong, kind, dedicated, supportive, caring people. Make patients feel proud to be a part of your practice, and they will remain a part of the practice well into the future.

Sally Dillehay
Sally M. Dillehay received her optometric degrees from and served on faculty at The Ohio State University College of Optometry. She received her EdD from Nova Southeastern University. For over 15 years, she held a variety of positions at CIBA Vision involved with clinical research and medical marketing. She then joined Visioneering Technologies, Inc., as its Chief Medical Officer. Most recently, she founded ClinTrialSolutions, LLC, a medical research organization, and serves as an Expert Contributor for The Brien Holden Vision Institute – Global Myopia Center. She sees patients at Eye 1st Vision Center in Sandy Springs, GA, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry, and a Diplomate in its CCLRT Section.

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