2020 was a year like no other. Healthcare providers confronted inconceivable and often rapidly evolving challenges, many of which tested their abilities to execute fast, efficient responses. Other challenges required more measured coordination and execution. Essential to an effective response to all of the unexpected developments was communication between stakeholders —those within and outside of organizations.
At Dialog Health, we were pleased that our two-way text messaging platform helped so many healthcare providers communicate about a wide range of vital care, safety, and operations issues in 2020. Here are 11 of the creative ways we saw our clients leverage texting to navigate largely unchartered waters in 2020, with many of these ways continuing into 2021.
1. Explain COVID-19 protocols
The pandemic forced healthcare providers to introduce or make substantial changes to safety policies and procedures that affected patients, staff, visitors, and vendors. Text messaging helped inform and remind these stakeholders about such changes, which included the introduction of "no handshake" policies, revisions to patient pre-screening and screening policies and procedures, requirements concerning the wearing of personal protective equipment (PPE), and revised waiting room policies.
2. Issue infection prevention and control rules and reminders
Infection prevention and control has taken on even greater importance during the public health emergency. We saw our clients use text messaging to emphasize infection prevention and control recommended practices and rules, including those concerning hand hygiene, PPE, hand sanitizer, and social/physical distancing.
3. Conduct COVID-19 pre-screening
In addition to informing stakeholders about changes to pre-screening policies and procedures, healthcare organizations used text messaging to help them actually perform pre-screening. For example, two-way text messaging was used to ask patients if they were feeling well on the day of their appointments and to remind patients that they should reschedule appointments if they were not feeling well or taking care of someone who was ill. As another example, providers used text messaging to direct patients to fill out screening surveys to help determine whether they were potentially exposed to COVID-19.
4. Cancel and reschedule appointments
Using text messaging to cancel and reschedule appointments is nothing new. What is new is the scale of which texting was used to do so during the pandemic. When organizations like practices and ambulatory surgery centers were required to significantly scale back or temporarily cease operations, texting informed the many affected patients about the need to cancel their appointments.
When the time came to resume operations, text messaging served as a highly effective and efficient way of reconnecting with those patients who had their appointments cancelled, with such text messages providing instructions for how patients could reschedule their appointments (e.g., phone call, form, portal).
Providers also used texting to include information about new safety measures or include a hyperlink to a page on the organization's website that detailed such measures.
5. Provide updates on safety protocols
Throughout the pandemic, healthcare organizations changed and strengthened their safety protocols to reflect evolving regulations and recommendations. Text messaging was used to keep patients current on the steps staff were taking to best ensure safety and reduce risk. These messages were sent to help encourage patients to keep their appointments. In addition, the texts helped provide comfort to patients and encourage them to schedule or reschedule appointments, with texting often playing an integral role in recall campaigns.
6. Support telehealth and virtual care
Healthcare providers leaned heavily on the usage of telehealth and virtual services last year as a way to replicate face-to-face appointments, deliver care, and improve access while allowing patients to reduce their risk of exposure to COVID-19. Telehealth also helped reduce exposure risk for staff.
Many organizations with telehealth programs — some of which were launched during the pandemic — made text messaging an integral part of their programs. Texting was used to inform patients about and encourage patients to take advantage of telehealth services, remind patients about telehealth appointments, and initiate telehealth consultations.
Medalliance Medical Health Services, a diagnostic and treatment center in New York, is one such organization that used text messaging to support its telehealth program. As David Alejandro, the organization's marketing and community relations director, noted, "We send daily links via text that direct patients to our telehealth platform. Patients can then receive follow-up care and answers to their pressing questions in real time. The ability to text with patients has really made delivering care much easier."
7. Update and coordinate on COVID-19 vaccine distribution
Once COVID-19 vaccines received emergency use authorizations, healthcare providers began informing staff and eligible recipients about developments and plans concerning availability and distribution. Text messaging was used in numerous ways as part of these efforts, including surveying stakeholders about their willingness to receive the vaccine, providing links to information and education, and coordinating the vaccine administration.
8. Contact tracing
Contact tracing is an essential step to help limit the spread of COVID-19. Healthcare providers leaned on text messaging to support their contact tracing efforts. Organizations sent automated text surveys to patients 7 days and 14 days following an in-person visit to their facility to ask whether patients had developed COVID-19 symptoms. Two-way texting provided a contactless, streamlined approach to determine whether contact tracing was necessary.
9. Support open enrollment
With many organizations adopting telecommuting and reducing on-site, face-to-face interactions, engaging employees in open enrollment had the potential to prove more difficult in 2020 than in years past. Text messaging helped healthcare providers overcome barriers to engagement as they sent texts to inform and remind staff about open enrollment dates, direct employees to self-service web portals, provide education about benefits, and share contact details of the benefits representative.
10. Update and coordinate with family members
To reduce exposure risk, healthcare organizations implemented restrictions on the ability for family members to wait inside a facility while a patient was receiving care. Providers used texting to keep family current on patient progress and inform them when patients were ready for discharge. An example of when such text messaging was particularly helpful was ambulatory surgery centers communicating with family members who would be driving patients home following their surgical procedures.
11. Improve staff morale
As Greater Good Magazine reported, "In half a dozen studies with over 10,000 respondents, they found that people were experiencing worse mental health problems than before the pandemic — high symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Up to half showed serious signs of depression (depending on the study), while up to 35% showed serious anxiety."
Healthcare organizations leveraged texting to support their staff. As an example, our client Lovelace Health System in New Mexico sent periodic texts that shared uplifting messages and inspirational quotes. Serena Pettes, the health system's vice president of marketing and business development, stated, "Sending texts to our employees via the Dialog Health platform during COVID-19 has been an easy, quick, and effective way to provide support, encouragement, and guidance during a challenging time."
Dialog Health President and Co-Founder Brandon Daniell noted, "While we may not have envisioned clients using our text messaging platform to deliver emotional and inspirational words of encouragement, we could not be prouder that they are doing so."
Text Messaging Further Cements Its Value
Prior to 2020, adoption of text messaging as a central communication tool was on the rise among healthcare providers. The pandemic and developments around it further spurred usage of texting because it's fast, effective, and affordable. A large majority of all text messages are read within just minutes of their delivery, and almost all text messages are read on the day they are received. Texting also helps organizations support efforts to limit in-person communication and thus reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus.
There's every reason to believe that organizations will continue to find creative ways to leverage text messaging to help them overcome challenges and take advantage of opportunities in the future. As Daniell toldSalientValue, "With the usage of smartphones and texting showing no signs of slowing down, we anticipate the demand for a service like the one we provide will continue to grow even after the worst of the pandemic is behind us."