Communications: key to allaying fears of patients

We ask ASEAN hospitals how they are assuring patients, who may be fearful about physical appointments amidst COVID-19, to seek the care they need.

Many hospitals have had to delay non-urgent procedures and restrict face-to-face consultations during the pandemic lockdowns, so as to minimise crowds and ensure strict infection control. In the year since, hospitals have put in place strong COVID-19 management and infection control measures, to ensure their facilities are safe to reopen and offer in-person services to patients.

However, some patients have still been hesitant to come back to the hospital for physical appointments or surgeries, due to the lingering fear of contracting COVID-19 in medical facilities. This fear has seen patients even avoid coming into emergency rooms for acute conditions – emergency room volume was reportedly down 30% to 50% in the US in April 2020, during the height of the pandemic. For patients with chronic diseases, it is also crucial that they do not skip their planned check-ups or ignore any emerging symptoms. This would ensure their conditions are managed well, and for doctors to make any necessary interventions in time.

We speak to several hospitals in the ASEAN region to find out what strategies they are employing to bring patients back for the care they need.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

The number one strategy that hospitals have taken is to communicate to the patients about the safety measures that have been taken. Photos of disinfecting work being carried out, the screening procedures for patients, visitors and staff, and so on, can go a long way in assuring patients that hospitals are pulling out all the stops to ensure a safe environment for them. As the saying goes, seeing is believing.

These photos, videos or short information bites can be posted online – via social media or websites to spread the word and engage the patients – or offline, on the hospital’s premises. For example, Makati Medical Center in the Philippines created posters on the hospital’s infection prevention protocols and signages on safety guidelines, which were installed at different parts of the hospital. In addition, it leveraged on its internal and external newsletters to publish updates on the hospital’s COVID-19 initiatives.

As communication is a two-way process, hospitals should also be as open and transparent as possible in engaging their patients. Malaysia’s Institut Jantung Negara maintain several forms of communication channels to respond to patient feedback or enquiries on the hospital’s COVID-19 strategies. A dedicated team communicate with patients via SMS, WhatsApp, Telegram and e-mail.

Adopting new operating procedures

There is a risk, no matter how minimal, of infection during any interaction or exposure with other individuals. Hospitals will have to rethink and redevelop existing work processes in mitigating the risk of infection as much as possible.

For Medistra Hospital in Indonesia, one initiative is through training a group of Customer Service Officers, consisting of general practitioners and senior trained hospitality officers. These officers will escort the patient throughout their stay at the hospital, prior to arrival up to discharge – including registration, examination and consultation. This greatly lowers their exposure to other patients or staff at the hospital.

“This will significantly upgrade the level of trust from our patients as well as eliminate their fear of visiting the hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Dr Dini Handayani, Chief Executive Officer of Medistra Hospital. “Combining the medical knowledge from senior general practitioners, with top notch hospitality service, will comprehensively meet all of the patients’ requirements prior, during and up to discharge.”

Separately, several hospitals noted that they have made COVID-19 testing mandatory for patients prior to admission or surgery. To this end, KPJ Johor Specialist Hospital shared that they will be offering COVID-19 tests free for their surgery patients.

Besides testing for patients, Asian Hospital & Medical Centre in the Philippines has also conducted testing for its staff. Its “Tagged Safe” campaign focused on keeping their staff safe, including conducting testing, contact tracing and quarantine for cases of higher risk. The emphasis on staff safety helps to assure patients about the care that they will receive.

Pivoting to alternative care delivery methods

Much has been said about the rise of telemedicine and virtual care during the pandemic. It is likely that this will be a permanent shift away from traditional care delivery methods, and hospitals will have to adapt to the new normal and trends in patient behaviour. As such, most hospitals surveyed indicated that they have invested in telemedicine and virtual consultation offerings. While there are some procedures that have to be carried out in person, the virtual care option remains useful for physicians.

Hospitals including Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand, and Primaya Tangerang Hospital in Indonesia also offer home care services.

Separately, hospitals such as Gia An 115 Hospital has deployed mobile apps, which allow patients to make appointments and reduce their waiting time in the hospital. Other hospitals such as Oriental Melaka Straits Medical Centre are offering medication collection via drive-thru or home delivery services.

Bringing patients back to the office

The highly infectious nature of COVID-19 has understandably caused anxiety and fear amongst patients.

However, it is important to note that in many cases, the risk of not getting care might be greater than the risk of getting the virus. Hospitals will need to assure patients that they have done everything necessary to provide a safe and sterilised setting, or promote their alternative virtual or home care services, so patients do not delay seeking their care before it is too late.