New Research Points to Strategies for Calming Consumer Anxiety and Coming Through the Pandemic Stronger

July 15, 2020

// By Marlene Kurban //

“People will remember how they’re treated,” says Rob Klein, founder and CEO of Klein & Partners. “And how you treat them will determine whether your brand comes out of this with momentum.”

Klein & Partners and The DRG recently released the results of the third wave of an online national survey measuring consumer reactions to the coronavirus. What are ongoing concerns and how confident are consumers in seeking care for non-coronavirus medical conditions?

A random sample of 511 adults polled in mid-June 2020 offers useful insights about Americans’ perceptions of how health care providers are handling the pandemic and what it will take to bring patients back.

Rob Klein, Founder & CEO, Klein & Partners

Rob Klein, Founder & CEO, Klein & Partners

Not surprisingly given the recent increase of positive tests in some states, many people feel no progress has been made toward a “new normal” since May. Women and those ages 18 to 44 are the least optimistic, with higher levels of concern and higher levels of anxiety.

“Be prepared for non-linear fits and starts,” says Klein, founder & CEO, Klein & Partners. “While negative emotions continue to ease, people are still hesitant about getting back out and participating in most activities.”

Empathy is the key to helping consumers overcome their reluctance to get the care they need. Health care providers can build on their already high “approval ratings” by understanding the emotional landscape and interacting with consumers accordingly.

An Emerging Mental Health Crisis

Mental health issues present a serious challenge with all age groups and particularly with younger people. “Millennials have gone through 9-11, the recession in 2008, and now COVID-19 and its economic impact. They may never reach their full financial potential,” Klein notes. “Millennials and Gen Xers reported high levels of stress even before the pandemic. How are we preparing to meet people’s mental health needs, including the mental health needs of clinicians? Frontline staff express significantly higher levels of anxiety, fear, anger, and loneliness. While the coronavirus will eventually subside, whether naturally or through a vaccine, we’re left with a mental health crisis we urgently need to address.”

“Millennials and Gen Xers reported high levels of stress even before the pandemic. How are we preparing to meet people’s mental health needs, including the mental health needs of clinicians?”

In addition, most of the medical conditions for which people feel an immediate need for care are directly or indirectly mental-health related, such as stress and anxiety, depression, and hypertension. Nearly one in 10 Americans (8 percent) have had a mental health therapy session canceled due to the pandemic, and four in 10 of those with a canceled session haven’t rescheduled yet.

“We need a strategy to get these people in,” states Klein. “It’s not just what’s happening now, but the lag effect of the pandemic — a possible rise in bankruptcy, homelessness, divorce, and suicide. Mental health and physical health are inextricably linked.”

Bringing Patients Back

The level of concern about rescheduling appointments or medical procedures is consistently higher among women, 18- to 44-year-olds, and among the African American and Latinx communities. So how can health care providers proactively reach out to these individuals and ease their concerns? One-size messaging does not fit all.

“More and more patients are looking to their physicians to guide them back in,” says Klein. “Physicians are the face and voice of your brand and are key to bringing patients back. There’s never been a better time to be proactive in reaching out, and that includes being proactive in getting people to your website and social media channels. Your SEO strategy still has to be strong. More people are looking for coronavirus information on their physicians’ websites.”

“Physicians are the face and voice of your brand and are key to bringing patients back.”

Showing empathy is critical. “When you reschedule your patients, ask them how they’re doing and acknowledge their fear and anxiety,” Klein suggests. “The top reasons people switch health care providers is feeling that their provider lacks empathy for their situation, has a negative attitude or makes them feel rushed, or is difficult to work with in getting them rescheduled. People will remember how they’re treated, and how you treat them will determine whether your brand comes out of this with momentum.”

Access to Care

Providers have made great strides in access to care. Virtual care continues to grow in popularity as a key access point and is here to stay.

“Time is the new currency,” states Klein. “Providers need to position virtual care as a long-term solution to access. Most patients who’ve tried a virtual visit learned about it from their doctor’s office. Those who haven’t tried virtual care and have objections to it are concerned about privacy, impersonality, technology in general, or simply not knowing enough about it.”

“Providers need to position virtual care as a long-term solution to access.”

Klein compares the acceptance of virtual care with other technological advances. “Think about when banks first introduced ATMs back in the ’80s. Now we can’t imagine a world without them. The point is that people have been forced into trying virtual care and after the effects of the coronavirus wear off, the value-proposition of easy, convenient, quality care must remain.”

Besides offering virtual visits when medically appropriate, health care providers should consider extended daytime and weekend hours, and same-day appointments whenever possible. The survey shows that the anticipated use of virtual visits for sick care or therapy sessions after the coronavirus is significantly higher among the African American and Latinx communities.

“Providers need to continue offering convenient, easy, quality care,” states Klein.

Easing Safety and Cost Concerns

The survey shows that health care providers can ease patients’ safety concerns by communicating that they’re following the standard guidelines to prevent infection:

  • Requiring social distancing
  • Wearing masks and gloves and making this equipment available for patients
  • Asking patients to wait in their cars until it’s time for their appointment
  • Handwashing

Facilities should explain how they’re handling coronavirus patients that they may be treating and their cleaning and sanitation protocols.

“Talk with patients to calm their anxieties,” Klein advises. “Email or text them to explain what you’re doing to make it safe for them to come back and get care, and what they need to do when they come in.”

Given the economic damage caused by the pandemic, what can providers do to help consumers who are suffering financially?

“Easing cost concerns requires out-of-the-box thinking,” Klein states. “Patients need our help to come back, and in the short term, we need to be creative to help them manage the cost of care. Consider lowering or eliminating co-pays, waiving deductibles, and working with health insurance companies on behalf of patients to lower their out-of-pocket costs.”

A Multifaceted Approach

It’s clear from the survey that getting patients back requires understanding people’s emotions and mindsets, developing a strategy to address patients’ mental and physical health needs, and proactively and empathically reaching out with solutions.

“We have to keep innovating and evolving,” states Klein. “It will make all the difference in building consumer confidence and trust.”

Marlene Kurban is a business development consultant and freelance writer with more than 20 years of experience in the behavioral health care field.