The world has changed forever, and there are many questions on Americans’ minds as we push through the challenges associated with this pandemic and the economic shutdown. Despite the elevated levels of fear and uncertainty we are experiencing, many in healthcare feel there is a real opportunity to change the system for the better. Positive change will ultimately depend on how we (individually and collectively) respond in the aftermath of this crisis, and find new ways to engage, care for, and empower patients. Given this need to adjust and adapt to the new COVID era, many HCPs expect to see rapid innovation on a large and small scale.

More Self-Care Will Be Required

Care is increasingly getting pushed farther outside of the walls of the hospital and more into the patient’s home. This reality is accelerating with the arrival of COVID-19. In today’s climate, with social distancing advisements in place for the foreseeable future, we are pushing more of the responsibility back onto the patient to manage their health conditions.

This will require healthcare systems to re-evaluate patient care and support because the patient is being asked to carry more and more of the burden and at a faster pace. This is because they don’t have access to some of the services that maybe they’ve had in the past, or the access they do get is changing. We will lean more heavily on telehealth, but this will require a substantial learning curve for certain patient populations and physicians in some areas of medicine.

It will be critical, especially during this time, to ensure that patients are stable, getting what they need, and are able to make the right decisions to care for themselves most effectively. As a result, we are likely to see increased efforts among healthcare providers and drug manufacturers to implement new kinds of patient support services. This will also foster positive behavior change in the populations they serve.

In some ways, individuals can’t rely on others in the same way they once did, and this might lead to more people adopting a self-centered or “me-first” mentality. On the surface, this would appear to be a negative outcome of the pandemic. However, if it emphasizes the critical role we all have in taking better care of ourselves and thinking more critically about the decisions we make, then this mentality could be a positive development. This is especially true in healthcare where more of the responsibility (and burden) of treatment is getting shifted onto the shoulders of the patients. Learning to be more independent and self-reliant will be critical for patients (and other healthcare consumers) if they are to maximize their personal safety and overall health and well-being.

Changing Patient Behavior

One of the critical aims for providers will be to foster meaningful and lasting health-related behavior change. But what is the most effective way to accomplish this task during this uniquely confusing and frightening time? How should new modes of care be presented? How should positive behaviors be encouraged or undesirable habits be disparaged? Through what media should health-related habits be urged? If we believe the idea that consumers are taking heed and looking for support and guidance, then who should provide that guidance? Should the emphasis be on converting each individual to purposeful self-management or altering the style of interventions so that individuals will be well treated & educated without exercising conscious and continuous behavioral vigilance?

Perhaps the answers to these and other questions will come with time. Still, we can hasten their arrival through proactive efforts to understand patient perceptions and lived experiences in this new altered reality.

Pandemic or not, we believe that to accelerate meaningful behavior change among diverse patient populations, we must first understand their reality in a deep and nuanced way. This includes knowing more about the behaviors they engage in daily and the key drivers of those behaviors (needs, values, beliefs and attitudes). Once we are firmly grounded in a deeper and more holistic understanding of the patients, we can begin developing more effective engagement, education, and empowerment tools and strategies.

Looking to Behavioral Science for Answers

Behavioral science has been a known commodity in the healthcare space for many years. It is an important element in understanding issues: like treatment uptake, adherence, self-management, the reduction of risky health behaviors such as smoking, drug use, alcohol consumption, poor dietary and lifestyle choices. The disciplines of anthropology, psychology and sociology are the fields of study within behavioral science that we can draw from to better understand individual and collective human behavior. These fields will become increasingly important for healthcare organizations looking to drive behavior change in their patients.

Linking patients’ daily habits and behaviors to the insight coming from ongoing clinical and public health research will hopefully produce individuals who are well-adjusted, better informed, and more empowered. But such an application of behavioral science may be rendered meaningless if it is not paralleled by efforts to increase education, access to care, and adequate distribution of healthcare resources.

Knowledge empowers informed action

Education is critical for everyone as it relates to COVID-19, but it’s especially critical to the most vulnerable patient populations. Education can simply be information about COVID-19 – symptoms, risks, acquisition, transmission, prevention, etc., but it can also come in the form of personal coaching and resource sharing. Patients feel empowered when they are armed with information that they can use to build knowledge that will ultimately help them make adjustments to their behavior. Fundamentally, knowledge empowers individuals to act in an informed way.

That said, information becomes knowledge only when it has been processed and assimilated by the user. In other words, information can be provided, but it’s ultimately up to the user to convert that information into knowledge that is relevant to their needs and applicable to their decision-making. Therefore, the information sought and retained must have meaning (Bellinger et al 2004).

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