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How Convenient Care Access, Scheduling Closes Gaps in Care

Implementing online appointment scheduling and opening up appointment slots during off-hours helped Beacon Health System address COVID-era gaps in care.

Like nearly every other healthcare organization, the Indiana- and Michigan-based Beacon Health System is eyeing the gaps in care opened during the pandemic carefully. But in addition to the targeted patient outreach happening in offices across the country, the organization is adding something else to its toolbox: extending convenient care access.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, anywhere between a third and 40 percent of patients did not access routine medical care, depending on the data source. In October 2020, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention said four in 10 patients did not access healthcare specifically because they worried they might become infected with the novel coronavirus in a healthcare facility.

In February 2021, the Urban Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation corroborated that evidence, reporting that 36 percent of adults under age 65 went without needed care during the pandemic. A quarter of those patients said it was out of fear of contracting COVID-19 in a medical setting.

Now that vaccine rollout is underway—although still falling short of the coveted 70 percent goals set earlier this year—healthcare organizations are working to fill those gaps in care. While people were foregoing their care out of fear of infection, they were missing other critical checks and screenings.

For Beacon Health System, offering convenient care access is going to be central to that effort.

The organization’s chief strategy & digital growth officer, Diane Maas, said its online appointment scheduling system and provider search functions from Kyruus are going to be instrumental in filling care gaps. And it just so happens these systems fill a dual function, helping the organization to keep up with the shift to healthcare consumerism so evident today.

“The transformation that we're going through in healthcare is really similar to what other industries have gone through or are going through,” Maas told PatientEngagementHIT. “It's really about providing convenient care for our patients. The pandemic just showed that people are looking to make things easier for them in doing things in a connected way.”

Although Beacon Health System’s online appointment scheduling system was not up and running during the pandemic, the system was implemented this past November, complementing its provider search functions.

Now, Beacon Health System is seeing a change in how its patients interact with the organization, beginning with when they want their care. Only about 37 percent of scheduled visits are happening during “normal office hours,” Maas reported. This is natural, she added, considering the lives patients lead outside of the healthcare facility.

“Many of us we work during the day, so it's not super convenient to stop what you're doing during your busy day to think about, ‘Oh I need to stop and schedule a mammogram or a doctor's appointment,’” she said. “It's really about the convenience for the patients. It's scheduling when it's convenient for them, at nights, weekends, holidays, whenever. So that's really what we're trying to do is make it easy for our customers to reach us.”

That open scheduling will ideally also help compel more patients to visit the office, Maas suggested, which could help Beacon Health System be on its way to closing care gaps. If it’s easy for the patient to get into the office at the time they want using the scheduling mechanism they want, they might actually close that loop.

The strategy for closing care gaps extends beyond an “if you build it they will come,” mentality, however. Beacon Health System has also done extensive marketing to educate patients on the importance of screenings and keeping up with routine care.

“We implemented what we called business performance, so looking at where we needed to really work to get people back to care and what areas we needed to bring up first,” Maas explained. “We did a large campaign on getting people back to primary care, back to the offices, back to urgent care.”

“We did a lot of outreach to the patients,” she continued. “We did a lot of ads and commercials telling people it was safe to come back to care and we directed them back to care by scheduling online when it's convenient for you.”

Those marketing campaigns entailed commercials, billboards, and email campaigns through their customer relationship management (CRM) tools. Importantly, each of those messages called on the patient to schedule their appointment using the new online scheduler.

That allowed Maas and her team to track which messaging modalities were most effective.

“The week of mid-April was about the time we were able to track the people coming back to scheduling probably at the greatest level. And it stayed pretty high after that, so that was interesting for us to see that,” Maas said. “The TV campaigns did seem to have some impact with social.”

Beacon Health System does anticipate some patients will be harder to re-engage than others. Maas said the organization is currently considering text message patient outreach to reconnect with existing patients that have been harder to reach.

“We’re considering actually doing outbound text reminders that you're due for physicals and mammograms, those sorts of things. Some of what we call the gaps in care,” she noted.

Maas and her team need to consider text message frequency, she acknowledged, to avoid patients hitting the unsubscribe button. However, the organization is eager to see how well text message outreach works to further close care gaps.

Until then, Maas said Beacon Health System is seeing some success with the online appointment scheduling option, and is continuing on a path to push toward digital.

“We're starting to see the data now that our phone calls are coming down as our online appointment scheduling is going up,” she concluded. “We're making sure that we put the messages on the phone that if you're waiting for somebody to pick up, you can schedule online for your convenience.”

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