Pandemic has changed the way patients see doctors, new survey finds

The driving factor behind drops in confidence in doctors was infrequent updates about COVID-19; only about a third of patients reported receiving messaging about the COVID-19 vaccine from their healthcare providers. (Getty/SuwanPhoto)

The coronavirus pandemic has affected the way people see doctors and their responsibilities, with nearly one in five patients are considering changing their doctor.

According to a new survey, half of patients have higher expectations for doctors since the pandemic, and nearly a quarter say their opinion of their doctor has changed. The survey, which is in its first iteration and was overseen by SymphonyRM, a healthcare software platform, surveyed nearly 1,200 U.S. patients. It was conducted mid-May and aimed to assess COVID-19's impact on patient engagement expectations. 

Higher expectations include wishing for more active communication from their providers, having the ability to digitally schedule appointments, do virtual visits and participate in remote monitoring. 

The driving factor behind drops in confidence in doctors was infrequent updates about COVID-19; only about a third of patients reported receiving messaging about the COVID-19 vaccine from their healthcare providers. Meanwhile, less than half of patients said they received general information about the pandemic. This is particularly meaningful in a year that has been rife with health misinformation, which is an ongoing threat to public health and safety and has even prompted pleas from government officials.  

"Even prior to the pandemic, healthcare systems were struggling to connect and engage with healthcare consumers," SymphonyRM CEO Mike Linnert told Fierce Healthcare. "Hence, the rise of retail health and the competitive threat they are posing to systems through proactive, highly relevant and personalized communications, especially through digital mediums."

COVID-19 is not the only subject nearly half of patients wish their providers communicated more with them about. More than 40% of respondents would like general health and wellness guidance, as well as scheduling options for preventative screenings. Nearly as many would also like regular communication about appointment availability and chronic disease management.  

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Linnert said he believes one positive outcome of the pandemic is its facilitating digital transformation ventures like virtual visits and digital doctor-patient communication. "It's a win-win for both system and consumer," he said. And companies like SymphonyRM can leverage artificial intelligence to help identify providers' target patient audiences. "Digital communications and interactions have become a default way of life during the pandemic. This will only be accelerated and become the de facto standard if it isn’t already," he said.

However, while these services are greatly needed for most Americans, a percentage of the U.S. population either does not have broadband access or does not go online.

In its report on the findings, SymphonyRM noted that healthcare providers miss opportunities to engage patients, which not only has implications for public health but also for driving revenue. 

Though patients reported receiving messages from retail brands most often, like Netflix and Amazon, the majority would prefer relevant healthcare messages instead, if given a choice. The report noted that retailers are expert at engaging loyal customers because of their frequent messaging tactics and by leveraging data points to target their outreach, SymphonyRM noted. Health providers should do the same, especially given their access to expansive data on patients. 

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"The challenge is making sense and finding correlations across the clouds of data and knowing what actions to take for each patient," Linnert explained. AI can help sort through that data and prioritize communications for every kind of healthcare consumer, he added. Without more proactive communication, the relationship between provider and patient will continue to deteriorate, and patients will seek information from other sources, some of which are potentially unreliable or even inaccurate.

"As we exit the pandemic or perhaps enter an endemic, the need for proactive, highly-relevant provider communication is more crucial than ever to recapture the trust of the healthcare consumers and drive the patients they serve towards the care they need and deserve," Linnert said.

While a racial breakdown of the data is not available, Linnert told Fierce Healthcare these findings are likely more prevalent among minority populations because of a lack of trust in the health system. "When you lose or don’t have trust in something, you’re not going to use it or engage with it," Linnert said.

Studies as recently as 2020 have highlighted the significant racial disparities in the U.S. healthcare system that disproportionately affect Black, Latinx and Native American patients. This is also obvious in COVID-19 data on cases, hospitalizations and deaths. SymphonyRM plans to continue the survey on a "recurring basis," Linnert said, and he anticipates such a racial breakdown of the data to become available moving forward.