A New Challenge: Generating Client Flow During the COVID-19 Pandemic
April 17, 2020
COVID-19 has created new challenges. You have had to transition your practice to TeleMental Health nearly overnight. You have implemented new billing workflows to support telehealth. You have managed to resume a new baseline of operations albeit at a lower revenue than prior to the stay-at-home orders that have been enacted in most states. Now you are confronted with the new challenge of lower client flow.
There are many opportunities to lose a new patient between the time when they are referred to your practice to the moment when they show up for their appointment. The new patient screening process, intake process, and appointment scheduling are all steps where leakage can occur. However, while every step in the process has been compromised some by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the first step, the generation of referrals, that has been disrupted the most for our customers.
The reduction in referral generation has been swift and dramatic which has resulted in a reduction of mental health intakes of over 50%. Referral sources can include primary care providers, other physical health providers, mental health providers, insurance company directories, former patients, and self-referrals. Health care consumption, even for primary care services, has dropped dramatically since the stay-at-home orders were first enacted. This reduction in visits with physical health providers is clearly driving lower referrals.
Other possible reasons for the decline in new-patient volumes are: 1) clients are having less contact with their friends and therefore have less opportunity to receive recommendations from them and 2) there is a general resistance to switching from in person to telehealth sessions.
How to increase you patient flow
Don’t wait. Act now: Things might return to as they were someday, but do not count on it. No one knows for sure how long the restrictions on movement will be in place. And even when shelter-in-place orders have been lifted, it is unclear what our new normal will look like or how that will impact patient volumes. Take immediate action to reinvigorate your patient flow.
Get the message right: In most places, all mental health is tele-mental health now. Your referral sources and clients need to know that you are open for business, that you are confident that you can serve their needs through telehealth, and that you have a plan to do so.
All hands on deck: Staff need to chip in. Consider having clinical staff check in on existing clients to see how they are doing. The entire team should also call referral sources to get the word out. Everyone has a stake in getting the referral engine flowing again.
Multi-channel outreach to referrals sources: Email, phone, old fashioned “snail mail” and your website are all important. Consider sending cards to all your referral sources to let them know that you hope that they are doing well and that you are open and fully operational for telehealth.
Website: It’s now more critical than ever to make sure that it is easy for prospective clients to contact you. Ensure your website is mobile-friendly as mobile devices account for most web traffic. If necessary, update your site. If you have an older site that requires a lot of scrolling or provides a clunky user experience, potential patients might move on before giving you a chance. Remove as much friction as possible for customers to initiate contact (e.g. if you have a “contact us” form with 20 fields to fill out, prospective clients will get fatigued and search elsewhere). Give them multiple ways to contact you – phone, email, easy web form – as some people do not like to use the phone or cannot call during normal business hours. Make sure to give them information on your website that shows what services you are providing specifically in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and reassure them about what they can expect from a telehealth visit.
Digital Marketing: This includes organic search, Google AdWords and social media among other things. If you are doing this well already, congratulations! You are ahead of the market and may wish to increase your investment. If you are just getting started, consider bringing in the help of an outside agency. The work is all about identifying your target audience and experimenting with your placements (e.g. type of digital placement, copy, images, call to action). That is where an outside agency can help. Make sure that you find one that is comfortable working with small businesses. Some have “starter packages” that allow you to make a small initial investment to begin and prove that they can deliver for you. You can then calibrate your investment and the number of projects you wish to pursue as you develop trust and comfort with your new partner.
If you need help building or refreshing your website, the initial investment might be higher. But in some cases, you might be able to see immediate impact to your volumes with something smaller such as an ad campaign that directs prospective clients to a new landing page that describes the services you are providing in response the COVID-19 Pandemic. Or consider adding a daily blog that describes the new COVID-19 services that you are providing.
New Services: The overall need for mental health services has not diminished. But you may need to create new programs and services in response to the pandemic. Here are several examples we have seen from our customers so far:
- COVID-19 support groups
- Continuing Education classes
- Group skills training classes tailored to crisis management
- Post traumatic skills classes
- Panic disorder / generalized anxiety / obsessive compulsive disorder webinars and support groups
- Classes on mindfulness / radical acceptance of change / embracing the unknown that are tailored to how to best manage being in the moment given COVID-19
With intention and effort, you will see your patient flow increase. Customers that are putting these ideas into practice are already seeing success and we are confident you will, too. Please let us know what is working for you.