Your hospital is struggling. 

The pandemic temporarily halted most elective (and even non-elective) surgeries and procedures, forced many doctors into telemedicine, and, overall, ravaged your system. At the same time, the pandemic didn’t change the fact that you have a balance sheet to answer for. The pressure is mounting to get patients back in beds, pay salaries, and simply survive as a healthcare provider. 

But you know your community is struggling, too. 

Even as we return to some semblance of normalcy, people remain fearful of or apathetic toward seeking healthcare. Making matters worse, they’re avoiding care at a time they might just need it most. Pandemic isolation, loneliness, and stress have resulted in new or worsening mental health challenges. And bad habits developed or exacerbated amid COVID life (think poor eating atop closed gyms) also mean unfavorable health outcomes. 

Clearly, the pandemic has changed our lives in the short-term. However, if we don’t act now, we will likely start to see this past year’s behaviors morph and solidify into long-term public health consequences.

Let’s explore how we got into this situation, and how to get past it.

A Deeper Look Into Why Communities Are Resisting Healthcare

To get people back into their regular healthcare environments, we first need to understand exactly what’s keeping them out. 

Fear of Contracting COVID-19 During a Hospital Stay or Doctor’s Visit

The most apparent reason some people are still avoiding hospitals and healthcare settings is because they’re afraid they’ll contract COVID-19 in those spaces. Some perceive COVID as a greater risk to them. Justified or not, these people are staying away and missing out on any needed treatment. 

Confusion About Ever-Changing COVID Guidelines 

Perhaps on top of the fear comes uncertainty and confusion. For one, there are near constant misunderstandings about the COVID-19 virus in and of itself. 

What’s more, people are unsure of the rules and messaging around seeking healthcare. This time last year, the prevailing directive was to stay home at all costs. All but the most urgent appointments were cancelled outright. Now, the messages are a bit more muddied. Stay home when you can, and social distance, but also re-enter some parts of society, like doctors’ offices.

This confusion isn’t necessarily anyone’s fault. Hospitals are only shifting policies as the pandemic and public health experts dictate. But the mixed messaging is hard to follow and jarring nonetheless. People think: Are appointments available again or not? What’s changed that makes pursuing care okay and safe again? If it’s not immediately clear one way or the other, they might dismiss the thought of a hospital or PCP visit altogether.  

Mistrust in Healthcare and Other Authority Sources Looms Large Over Society 

Mixed messaging doesn’t only lead to confusion, it can also lead to mistrust. People are wondering who to believe, and, bigger picture, who and what to trust. 

If we take a step back from healthcare, it seems that the public’s trust in many traditional authority sources has dwindled in the months since the pandemic. That includes organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), which has certainly lost clout in some circles this year. Additionally, big pharma remains ever-controversial. 

It’s plausible that some of this societal mistrust has trickled down to local hospitals, and even individual doctors. However unfair or unwarranted that may be. 

Patient Apathy Toward Holistic Wellbeing 

The final potential explanation for communities’ disengagement from healthcare is harder to define. It’s a sort of apathy toward wellness, and it goes back to those bad habits and behaviors some people have developed amid the oddity that is pandemic life. 

Think of it this way: Many people dramatically altered their lives at the start of the pandemic. Everything closed. Parents were suddenly home with their kids 24/7, the elderly were confined to nursing homes, and so on. Normal life wasn’t an option, and we got used to putting certain things off out of necessity. Namely, our own health. No one went to the gym, or got a colonoscopy, or called their PCP about that random (yet unrelenting) chest pain. 

Now, as vaccination efforts ramp up and we’re emerging from the worst of it, a sort of fog remains. There’s no momentum. No drive to go back to the way things were. There is an indifference or lack of motivation when it comes to scheduling appointments again and actually addressing that chest pain. 

Compelling Communities to Re-engage in Healthcare Before It’s Too Late

Your hospital does need its patients back, and that’s important. But this is about so much more than what’s happening inside the four walls of your hospital. Healthcare providers worldwide are called to combat both the fear and complacency plaguing our communities. To remind people of the ways in which they used to take care of themselves, including visiting various doctors. 

Chiefly, you should look to rebuild that lost trust quickly and credibly. There’s no one size fits all solution that will solve this problem because each community around each hospital is unique. 

That said, reigniting PCP/patient relationships is likely a good first step. If members of your community had a PCP pre-pandemic but have lapsed in seeing that doctor, try reestablishing that connection. Remind your patients that their healthcare can be more than transactional — a two-way relationship with a PCP is encouraged. And that PCP is an accessible human link that can serve as a patient’s stepping stone back into your whole healthcare network. 

Assure the Public That Accessing Healthcare Is Safe

To rebuild trust credibly, your facilities have to be as safe as you’re telling patients they are. They need to be assured that, when you say it’s okay to come back in, it really is. To that end, center the health and safety of your staff and patients in all things. Health and safety are always paramount, but especially amid a global pandemic. 

It goes beyond actually ensuring safety. You need to constantly demonstrate why your services are reliable and safe, too. If there’s something patients are likely to be particularly nervous about, perhaps elective surgery, plan ahead and provide reassuring resources above and beyond what’s typical. 

Leave No One Behind in the New Age of Telehealth  

Even when the COVID-19 pandemic has completely passed, telehealth in many forms will remain. In this moment, it’s also a way to reach patients who, despite your best efforts, can’t or won’t seek in-person care. 

Since telehealth is becoming more essential all the time, you must make sure that everyone can access it. The most vulnerable populations, including the elderly, often don’t have proper high-speed internet, or they aren’t technologically literate. Education around telehealth and remote monitoring tools is imperative. 

In sum, it’s your duty to diminish the barriers of going virtual so all patients can leverage new technologies. 

Leverage Proxemics to Humanize Digital Healthcare 

Ensuring access to telehealth services should be table stakes. You should also look to humanize online interactions as much as possible. 

Proxemics — or “how personal space is maintained as a function of one’s culture” — provides an interesting lens through which to consider digital environments. 

Although proxemics emerged in a time without technology as we know it today, the concept can still inform how we think about digital spaces. For instance, how might we close the “space” across screens to nurture warmth and doctor/patient connection? 

Creating human-first digital health experiences will attract patients back to your hospital time and time again.   

Study Your Hospital’s Community Through a Cultural Lens 

If you really want to understand your patients in this unique moment in history, you need to study them through a cultural lens. What are their true needs, motivations, beliefs, fears, and hopes in this new reality? What would be valuable to them in terms of their health?

Just listening to the population you serve — whether informally or through strategic qualitative research — will give you insights you can (and should) turn into patient-centric care initiatives. And when your community feels heard authentically, they will choose your hospital for their needs, regardless of the current climate. 

Above All Else, Practice Empathy in Healthcare

No matter which method you pursue to get your community back through your hospital’s doors, lead with empathy. 

The word empathy is perhaps overused, and definitely misused. It does not mean merely feeling for someone else. That’s better characterized as sympathy. 

Empathy, on the other hand, is intrinsically tied to action and understanding. Empathy demands that you actively listen to your communities’ perspectives, and prove you’ve comprehended their pain points with carefully attuned messaging and policies. 

At the end of the day, the only way to combat this post-COVID apathy and fear is through genuinely empathetic healthcare practices. 

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