To start checking-in for an appointment at Piedmont Healthcare, patients don’t even have to be in the facility anymore.
For the past several months, they’ve had the option to fill out paperwork online—such as verifying demographic and insurance information and signing forms—through the health system’s patient portal before an appointment, as part of an effort Piedmont began rolling out last year to make check-in more convenient.
The long-term vision at Atlanta-based Piedmont is to eliminate the need for registration staff to hand patients a clipboard or tablet at the start of their visit. It fits into a growing trend across industries to revamp processes as consumers say they feel more comfortable decreasing shared touch points and face-to-face interactions, particularly in the wake of COVID-19.
Piedmont started rolling out its online check-in process with a pilot in mid-2019, but the pandemic quickly accelerated its implementation. Piedmont deployed online check-in to nearly 500 departments at sites across the health system in just four weeks in the spring, said Katie Logan, the system’s chief consumer and strategic planning officer—much quicker than initially planned.
“It became an expectation of consumers and our patients to have that (online) option,” Logan said, given concerns about physical distancing and surface transmission of COVID-19 early on in the pandemic.
So far, 10.3% of patients with scheduled appointments have completed the entire check-in process online;
Piedmont’s goal is getting that proportion to 16% as it raises awareness about the option.
Decreasing touch points isn’t just a hospital trend. Businesses like CVS Pharmacy let customers pay with their smartphone, without having to hand over cash or a credit card, touch a keypad or sign a receipt. In November, CVS Pharmacy said it had experienced a 43% increase in those so-called “touch-free” payments at its stores since January.
CVS Health, which owns CVS Pharmacy, has touted such payment options as a way to improve convenience and safety.
“While we continue to enforce the wearing of masks and social distancing in stores, touch-free payment solutions provide an added peace of mind for customers by minimizing the number of surfaces they touch and allowing them to get in and out of the store quickly,” Ryan Rumbarger, CVS Health’s senior vice president for store operations, wrote in an email.
There’s growing evidence that COVID-19 transmission is unlikely from touching surfaces exposed to the virus, but that hasn’t necessarily changed patient expectations, as patients are increasingly choosing organizations that take steps to limit contact.
Nearly two-thirds of patients said they were likely to switch to a new health system if they felt their expectations regarding COVID-19 communication, sanitation, safety and virtual care weren’t met, according to a recent Accenture report. Patients were nearly two times more likely to say they’d switch providers if they weren’t able to pay or complete registration online.
Health systems that home in on what patients want can leverage patient experience to “recover financially and even position themselves for long-term growth,” chiefly by maintaining their patient volumes as well as capturing patients from competitors who haven’t met those expectations, said Jean-Pierre Stephan, Accenture’s managing director of health and engagement practice lead.
A touch-free interface was one of several drivers behind why Medical City Heart Hospital and Medical City Spine Hospital—Dallas facilities in the HCA Healthcare network that opened late last year—decided to implement a voice-activated system to guide patients and visitors with directions, given general concerns about germs in a hospital setting.
But COVID-19 sped up the facilities’ rollout of eight wayfinding screens from company Ouva, spread out across the buildings, said Josh Kemph, chief operations officer at Medical City Heart Hospital and Medical City Spine Hospital.
The project has proved particularly useful since the hospitals have ceased having volunteers on-site and patients are seeking ways to get directions without having to approach staff during the pandemic.
“It became more of a priority for us to push utilization,” Kemph said of the new system.
To use the system, visitors stand in front of a screen and verbally ask how to get to a clinical department, restroom or other location, at which point the system—an interactive, digital sign—illustrates how to get from point A to point B. It’s cut down on the number of paper maps the hospitals print and time staffers spend giving directions, Kemph said.