The Doctor Will Virtually See You Now | How Habits Have Shifted Since COVID-19 & How to Plan Ahead

It’s about a 5 min. read.

Caitlin Dailey
AVP, Account Management

Now that the vaccine is available to every American, I’ve been thinking a lot about the activities I can’t wait to get back to, while also re-evaluating what I’m comfortable with. What have I truly missed doing and what are the new habits I’ve formed that may carry over into my “next normal”? For example, ordering groceries online to avoid shopping in-store is a new habit I plan on sticking with. Telehealth is another service that I, and many of us, are considering keeping in our routine for the long-haul. The technology has been around for nearly two decades, and yet, many like myself never used it until the pandemic.

We’ve certainly seen benefits to telehealth: less commuting, less wait time, and (from the patient side) more efficient service. The ability for providers to care for patients virtually has freed up space and helped to prioritize resources to treat patients with the most serious conditions for which in-person care is necessary. Thus, it’s no surprise that, according to McKinsey, providers are seeing 50 to 175 times the number of patients via virtual care solutions than they did before COVID-19, and the number of US consumers using telehealth grew from 11% in 2019 to 46% in 2020. Now that adoption and usage of virtual care has become more prevalent, will healthcare consumers continue this behavior in the “next normal”? According to that same study, 76% of consumers indicated that they are interested in using telehealth going forward.

Of course, there are services that can’t be handled virtually, but have behaviors changed so much that consumers are willing to forgo certain procedures? While most elective procedures were forced to be postponed in the early days of the pandemic outbreak, data has shown that visits for preventative screenings like colonoscopies and mammograms have also declined, which could lead to serious illnesses going undetected. In order for healthcare providers to best serve patients going forward, they need to understand the new habits formed during the pandemic that are going to stick and why, which segments are most likely to maintain new habits, and where can they influence good habits such that consumers are still getting the care they need.

That is why with CMB’s Habit Loops®, we measure people’s deeply ingrained routines—the driving motives, cues/triggers that inspire action, the experience of the behavior/routine itself, and the experiential/material or psychological rewards that ultimately lead to practicing that routine again.

If there are certain virtual behaviors/routines that providers want to reinforce—to align with capacity, to see a return on their investment in upgraded technology, bandwidth or staff training, etc.—it will be important for them to make the routine of the telehealth visit easy and seamless so that it is worthwhile to the consumer such that they continue to use virtual services.

In practice, consider the scenario where a patient has a sore throat that they want to get checked out but are worried about being around other sick patients.

  • Motive: Providers must understand that the patient is motivated by their desire to get a diagnosis from the comfort and safety of their own home, and make sure that the experience delivers this benefit.
  • Cue: Knowing the underlying motive, and that people have been encouraged to handle things remotely during the pandemic, providers should make their digital platforms the ‘go-to’ starting point for this type of non-emergency care, and have apparent cues to encourage this behavior (e.g., highlighting the types of symptoms that warrant an in-person visit, such as throat swelling vs. for which virtual is fine, such as white spots; or telling patients to go online or email to book a sick visit instead of calling or showing up in-person). What’s communicated at this point in the process should be straightforward, easy-to-understand, and inspire feelings of comfort and peace of mind that the patient is going to get the care they need.
  • Routine: Make the consultation (routine) as easy as possible by ensuring proper digital connectivity and staff training, for example.
  • Reward: The outcome of the routine should yield for the patient the material reward of a proper diagnosis and a prescription/medication, if warranted, and ultimately feeling better physically, but it should also yield the psychological rewards that come from feeling better and feeling satisfied, comfortable, and supported by your experience. An overall positive experience should reinforce these digital behaviors from that patient again in the future, which ultimately benefits the provider.

In the case of patients who have forgone specific procedures like preventative screenings because of pandemic-related concerns/barriers, measuring the habit loop is critical for providers to be able to re-engage these patients. You should ask yourself:

  • Motive: What’s driving the patient’s decision to forgo this procedure(s)?
  • Cue: What messaging will be most salient to influence the behavior of coming back in-person to get care?
  • Routine: While the visit can’t be handled virtually, how do we make it easy and seamless such that the patient is satisfied with their decision to return in-person?
  • Reward: What role can technology play to make the experience feel more rewarding? When the actual visit can’t be done virtually, understanding what role technology can play across various touch points in the habit loop can help providers drive the digital behaviors that they want to influence going forward, creating a win-win situation.
    • Ex: allowing patients to check-in for their visit on their phone and receive updates to know when it’s their turn to be seen. Using technology to manage the waiting room helps patients feel like they are saving time and gaining greater efficiency throughout the visit. It may also make the patient feel safer/more secure—particularly while the threat of contracting COVID-19 is still present—and calm/content that they are still able to get the care they need. A rewarding experience should encourage repeat visits in the future.

As we turn a corner with the vaccine roll out, plan for a digital-first world to stay. Providers should examine their messaging/marketing on their websites/digital portals to not only make sure it’s helping consumers navigate the tactical elements of their virtual care experience, but also considering the emotional elements to help patients feel empowered in their decision-making and feel secure/content in their decision to seek care virtually or in-person.

Healthcare providers have the power to influence or trigger habits that can be mutually beneficial to the provider and patient or disrupt habits that aren’t. By identifying the habits or elements of the routine that make a behavior easier or more rewarding, providers can better contribute to improving the patient experience, and achieve the ultimate goal of better patient outcomes/health.