Drive-Thru Healthcare: How a COVID-19 Trend Can Be a Lasting Innovation

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By Dessiree Paoli

In parking lots across the nation, healthcare providers have administered coronavirus vaccines, checked in patients remotely, and let patients wait for appointments in their vehicles. But is this new kind of waiting room service a new normal, or was it just a temporary approach to patient care?

Drive-thru healthcare also likely wouldn’t have come about without the pandemic. Because hospitals have traditionally been viewed as safe and sterile environments, it has always been expected that care would occur within their walls. But when the pandemic hit, everything changed. Being inside increased people’s risk of catching the coronavirus, so keeping patients in their cars reduced exposure for both patients and staff.

With fewer patient visits, hospital parking lots also weren’t as full. This newly available real estate provided a quicker and safer way to administer certain types of care, such as COVID-19 tests and vaccines. For care that had to be given or received inside the hospital, many health systems implemented virtual waiting rooms that kept people safe and limited exposure to the fullest possible extent.

All of this was an “aha!” moment of sorts. We are innovating in ways we never thought possible, but we simultaneously see how many opportunities for innovation we’ve maybe missed all along. Below are a few forward-looking suggestions for how to keep innovating, both now and into the future:

1. Incorporate text messaging into your virtual waiting room.

When patients are sick and frustrated, it can be exhausting to navigate a phone tree and sit on hold just to tell someone you’re waiting outside. Adding a texting option makes the whole process more efficient and streamlined for patients and providers alike. Set it up so patients have a way to respond to a text they’ve already received from the hospital saying they’re “here.” Likewise, offer a way for the hospital to provide confirmation and a text when it’s time to come inside.

2. Build virtual solutions into your long-term strategy.

Even after it’s safe to reopen in-person waiting rooms, you might still have patients who prefer a virtual waiting room. Be sure to continue to offer this as an option to them; it will reduce exposure and help keep your physical waiting room more organized and less crowded.

Then, explore ways to expand your virtual solutions into areas like digital preregistration. For something like drive-thru testing or vaccinations, you can send links to forms patients can complete on their phones, which then generate bar codes that staff members can scan through patients’ car windows. This eliminates the need to complete any documents in the office or exchange anything tangible — even ID — between staff and patients.

3. Be mindful of accessibility.

As you integrate technology into your telehealth system, also offer translation, screen reading, voice, and captioning services. Your language should be clear, direct, and easy to understand so that people of all abilities can benefit from your tools. Further, a lack of internet access can prevent people in remote rural areas from using telehealth services. In those cases, be sure to offer phone appointments to ensure fair digital access to the best of your ability.

4. Keep iterating.

Just as you would with any technical implementation, it’s critical that you maintain a constant feedback loop and continually improve on your patients’ experiences. Whether it’s via a survey link or an email asking for feedback, find out from patients what they enjoy about your telehealth system and where there might be areas of opportunity. Then, commit to finding ways to implement their feedback. Small changes add up over time, so an incremental approach will help you stay focused and effective.

Now that more providers have opened the “digital front door” to patients, it’s time to rethink the entire patient experience as well as how we can continue to build a comprehensive telehealth system. Don’t let your innovation stall just because things are returning to normal. Embrace this new normal and be bold in how you harness innovations in the months and years to come.

Dessiree Paoli is a senior solution manager at Interlace Health, a company that transforms workflows by providing clinicians and patients with digital healthcare solutions. She has more than 18 years of experience in driving strategic marketing initiatives, leading teams, and developing integrated campaigns, and she has worked in healthcare for more than 12 years.

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