On March 18, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced that all elective surgeries as well as non-essential medical, surgical, and dental procedures should be delayed during the 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.
A number of state officials have published their own directives and guidance as well, ranging from recommending that providers scale back elective procedures to mandating that elective procedures be canceled or postponed.
These restrictions will not go on indefinitely however, and it is important to have your practice ready to reopen as soon as possible once limitations are lifted.
The effect of the pandemic on “nonessential” healthcare providers
This is a difficult time for many industries, and healthcare is no exception.
In an American Dental Association (ADA) poll of dentists, 76% of respondents indicated that they have closed their dental offices for all emergencies, while 19% of offices have temporarily closed completely. A Merritt Hawkins’ survey indicates that 21% of physicians have been furloughed or have experienced a pay cut, and 18% plan to either retire or temporarily close their practices due to the health crisis.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 43,000 healthcare jobs were lost in March, and the job losses in healthcare have increased as shutdowns persist throughout the pandemic.
America begins to reopen
There are early signs that the US COVID-19 case and death counts are leveling off.
The US government proposed gating criteria that states or regions must satisfy in order to proceed with reopening. Starting with phase one of the plan, elective surgeries may resume as well as other medical procedures.
As of this writing a number of states are moving towards phase one. Clinicians should prepare now to support incoming patients in the post-COVID new normal.
How best to resume your practice
On April 19, CMS issued a set of recommendations on how patient care organizations can fully open operations to elective surgeries.
The guidelines recommend a gradual transition and encourage clinicians to coordinate with local and state public health officials, and to review the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies, workforce availability, and facility readiness when making the decision to restart or increase in-person care.
Coming up with a plan to reopen
Various healthcare associations have offered protocols to follow for resuming business quickly and safely. Many of the guidelines are applicable to all medical offices.
For example, the American Optometric Association (AOA) published a reactivation preparedness guide outlining the steps to consider before opening:
- Anticipate when you will return to a normal schedule.
- Engage staff and associates in decision-making on new protocols or policies to enhance buy-in.
- Develop an action plan for staff to bring the practice back up to speed.
- Prepare for staff needs as they assimilate into the new working environment.
- Develop a robust system for office sterilization.
- Contact other medical professionals in the area to inquire about their reopening plans.
- Post signage in the office indicating new processes to encourage compliance.
- Communicate with patients about reopening for routine care.
The American Dental Association (ADA) meanwhile has developed a downloadable free Return to Work Interim Guidance Toolkit which includes:
- Guidance on pre-appointment screening.
- Updated in-office patient registration procedures.
- Reception area preparation strategies.
- Chairside checklist.
- Staff protection strategies.
- Supplies shopping list.
- Sample communications to send to patients.
How best to update patients on the status of your practice
As you prepare to reopen your doors, you want to fill up appointments as soon as possible. You need to let patients know when you will be reopening, and you also want to make them feel safe coming into your office by explaining protocols that you have in place to avoid disease transmission. The sooner you can ramp up appointments, the better for your practice and your patients.
One of the best ways to communicate with patients is via HIPAA compliant email. The return on investment (ROI) for email marketing is estimated at $42 for every dollar spent, which is up from $38 in 2018.
You might want to update your patients via an email newsletter, or by sending a bulk announcement to all your clients. Either way, be sure to partner with a vendor that offers HIPAA compliance by encrypting all messages you send. Most mainstream email marketing solutions will not sign a business associate agreement, so make sure you partner with one that does.