The Virtual Waiting Room – Social Distancing and Much Much More

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By Greg Kefer

As healthcare providers, both big and small, race to get back to business, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc on lives, businesses and minds.  States are gradually trying to reopen but a “new normal” for healthcare is likely here to stay for the near future, and beyond.

The industry went through a rapid shift to telemedicine in the early days of the pandemic because it was the best option for those that couldn’t wait to see their doctor. And, in many cases patients actually liked using a video conference to talk to their doctor. The convenience of firing up an iPad to see the doctor was actually kind of convenient — especially for younger generations who live more virtual lives. 

But now, as clinics and practices reopen, many are reporting a shift back to traditional in-person, face to face visits. A CMIO at regional PCP Group recently told me they are now seeing patients in-person for about 70% of their appointments. While telehealth may here to stay in some form, it will likely not represent the majority of patient-doctor interactions in the long run.

The business of healthcare that is largely dominated by patients seeing their doctors, in their office or clinic, several times a year, will ultimately return. According to the CDC, there are more than 883 million physician office visits in the US each year. That’s not something that just goes away. It’s also a massive opportunity for improvement because nobody loves the experience of going to the doctor.

We have all been there. Most can recite the same process – get an appointment reminder the day before, adjust schedule to arrive on time, check in, get handed a clipboard of paper forms, fill everything out, return it, sit back down, grab a National Geographic and wait until your name is called. Not much has changed since 1978.

Oftentimes it’s a pretty efficient process and sometimes it isn’t. A patient emergency early in the day could put a doctor hours behind schedule. And how many times are we asked to fill out the same paper forms over and over and over?  Or, worst of all, while waiting for that annual physical and there are four sick people in the waiting area sniffling and coughing badly which begs the question –  will I now get that bug?  

Fast forward to 2020 and a coughing person in a waiting room could potentially be treated as a hazmat situation, leading to quarantines, facility deep cleans and a contact tracing campaign. Similar to what retailers, restaurants and airlines are doing, healthcare providers are evolving to avoid any chance of COVID-19 transmission in the offices. But there may be a silver lining.

Today, the race to practice medicine in ways that keeps staff and patients safe is the driving force behind change. But take a step back and there is a golden opportunity to finally improve a patient experience and business process that needed attention anyway.

This is a prime opportunity for technology to step in and virtualize the entire process.  Patients don’t want robo call appointment reminder voice mails. They don’t like getting writer’s cramps filling out 10 pages of paper intake forms.  And most of all, they do not want to spend an extra second in a space where exposure to COVID-19 could happen. Healthcare apps have been developed to address some of this, but complexity and password overhead has resulted in low adoption levels. It’s time for plan B.

2020 may be the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is also the year that a new class of technology matured in healthcare. Conversational chatbots that interact with patients through simple messaging have risen to the occasion during the pandemic, engaging with and screening millions of patients as the industry struggled to meet patient demand. 

These simple, mobile solutions allow patients to get access to care, without the need to physically be somewhere or spending time with care teams that were in short supply.  The technology provides massive conversational scale so care teams can focus on treating patients vs. answering phone calls. COVID-19 screener bots made a difference because they worked.

Conversational chatbot technology is now being used to digitize the waiting room experience for all of the routine appointments that were put on hold during the peak of the pandemic. A mobile chatbot is capable of serving as a “virtual waiting room” digital assistant that replaces chairs, clipboards and face-to-face check ins.  

Chatbots interact with patients that have appointments and automate the entire end to end process that surrounds a visit to a doctor.  Reminders are handled with simple messaging, intake forms are digitized and completed early with high data quality, and in order to keep everyone safe, patients are held outside the office until the exam room is ready.  When the time comes to see the doctor, the chatbot alerts the patient via text to come in and head directly to the exam room.

Banner Health recently rolled chabot-powered virtual waiting rooms across their entire network, covering more than 1500 PCPs and specialists across 300 clinics. Patients can see their doctors and have reporting 90% satisfaction rates. Full integration with the EMR system creates immense operational process efficiencies.  It’s safe to say this technology will stay “on” forever.

We are entering a new normal for a lot of things and healthcare can no longer lag other industries when it comes to innovation on the consumer facing side of the engagement.  COVID-19 may be forcing things into high gear, but in the long run both patients and providers will win through better experience, better process and lower costs.

About Greg Kefer, Chief Marketing Officer, LifeLink

Greg, as CMO at LifeLink, is responsible for strategy, branding, communications, and demand generation at the healthcare chatbot technology company. Large hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and healthcare service providers use LifeLink bots to engage patient populations at scale, across a spectrum of workflows and scenarios. 

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