The COVID-19 pandemic & hearing healthcare

By Nicole Klutz, Au.D.

By now perhaps the initial shock of the COVID-19 pandemic — and what it means for the U.S. consumer — has lessen. However, as the U.S. started to feel the full strength of the pandemic, many consumers focused on stock piling grocery and health items as well as switching to e-commerce for most non-essential buying. Now, just two to three months after the onset of the pandemic, we find ourselves – as business owners, healthcare professionals, and even patients and consumers — switching gears into our own “fight” mode. We are ready to get back to business.

The hearing healthcare industry is resilient and has found itself in this situation before, as far back as the 2008-2009 financial crisis. The past has shown us hearing healthcare follows the lead of other healthcare fields: While it may be affected, it rebounds swiftly and strongly. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different.

In fact, surveys suggest a majority of first-time hearing aid wearers seeking a solution for their hearing loss ended up delaying their purchase due to COVID-19, leading to pent-up demand for not only hearing aids, but hearing healthcare services. Meaning that – now more than ever – is the time to bring patients back to clinics safely and effectively.

The ‘new normal’ – what does it really look like?

It’s true that business as we know it today will never resemble the “normal” we all remember, and we watch as consumers adapt to the new economic environment and spending starts to increase, but not to pre-pandemic levels. As we look to the future, many believe that until there is a vaccine, consumer spending could take until 2021 to return to pre-crisis levels.

Mayo Clinic estimates COVID19 pushed their tele-medicine program ahead a decade.

But what about right now? How do we know whether our patients are willing to try the tele-audiology or remote solutions we offer them? Tele-medicine has not been widely adopted in audiology. In fact, it’s been less than 10%1. Mayo Clinic estimates COVID19 pushed their tele-medicine program ahead a decade. They rapidly adopted tele-medicine as a result of the pandemic and are now utilizing it to the degree they had previously planned for by 20302.

The consumer – who are they? Will they accept it?

Think about your patient: Would you identify many of them as willing to adopt tele-audiology solutions? If you immediately counted your older patients out of the equation, take a step back for a moment. We know based on experience with connectivity that seniors are adopting technology and the vast majority are comfortable with using smartphones.

Nearly 30% of Baby Boomers already use smartphones to manage and receive medical care and that 53% would prefer their medical needs to be managed by a combination of healthcare professionals and technology3.

A 2019 AARP survey revealed that nearly 30% of Baby Boomers already use smartphones to manage and receive medical care and that 53% would prefer their medical needs to be managed by a combination of healthcare professionals and technology3.

Which came first – the chicken or the egg?

When you think about reopening your practice, what do you do? Do you open your doors and wait for your patients to come to you? Or do you meet them where they are first? Do you proactively reach out and communicate with them that you’re open to safely see them again? Or do you wait for them to figure it out themselves and come to you? It’s like the age-old question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

1 in 4 patients state that they are ready to come back and see their provider as soon as the provider is willing to see them.

Your patients are looking to you to proactively communicate with them before they reschedule a previous appointment or even think about a new patient appointment. In fact, 1 in 4 patients state that they are ready to come back and see their provider as soon as the provider is willing to see them.

But what if they don’t know you’re ready to see them? In addition, when asked what protocols would make patients feel more comfortable returning to the clinic in-person, patients ranked regular staff and patient health screenings and a robust infection & sanitation protocol among the top 3 protocols they’d want to know about.

Private pay or Managed Care – does it matter?

Regardless of the how the patient calling your office found his/her way to you – either via Managed Care or Third Party Referral Networks (TPRNs) or as a private pay patient – most likely they all share the same expectations when it comes to safety and returning to in patient appointments. And regardless of whether your practice sees mainly private pay or TPRN patients, the following advice applies as best practices to get your business rebounding successfully.

So, what do I do? Am I the chicken, or the egg?

Regardless of how I may decide if I’m the chicken or the egg – and which came first – you must take the first steps to make a difference and change the current state of your business. You cannot and must not sit and wait for your patients to come and find you – to call and ask you about your safety protocols – or you may be sitting there for quite a while. So – what do you do?

We’ve narrowed it down to 4 easy steps. Let’s review!

  1. Proactively communicate with your patient database as well as any physician networks or community medical centers who often refer patients to you. Whether it’s a phone call, an email, community newsletter or update to your website and social media, it is imperative that you let your patients know you are open and ready to see them and the types of appointments you are offering (i.e., in person vs. remote/tele-audiology services).
  2. Don’t just tell them you’re open – let them know they’re safe in your practice. Don’t forget – proper infection control & sanitization protocols ranked among the top 3 things patients wanted to know about and directly influenced their willingness to come into the office. Let your patients know what you’ve done to ensure both their safety and the clinic’s safety. Provide examples, share pictures and incorporate this information into any area of your business in which patients may consume (i.e., telephone after hours messages & voicemail, website updates, newsletter communications, clinic staff communication).
  3. Proactively communicate with the TPRNs that you participate with. Many of our TPRN partners are back to credentialing, actively referring and accepting reverse referrals. Don’t hesitate to call the provider services team at each TPRN with whom you are credentialed and let them know that you’re actively seeing patients. This way the TPRN knows that you’re open and they can ensure they get the new patients to an authorized provider who is open and ready to support them.
  4. Don’t guess – ask questions! A lot has changed in the past 2 months since the pandemic hit us. Don’t assume that the way you operated before the pandemic is still the only way for you to operate your business going forward. Reach out and call your TPRN and ask them questions to clarify and understand their current operating procedures and if they have recently changed. Here are a few of the best questions to ask your TPRN as you get started seeing patients again:
    1. How has COVID changed their business?
    2. Are TPRNs extending trial periods or making any other considerations due to the pandemic?
    3. How have the policies on tele-audiology changed due to COVID-19?
    4. When using tele-audiology, do those visits count towards the patients’ allowed follow up?
    5. Does the TPRN ship directly to patients? For example, can they ship supplies, etc. directly to the patient.
    6. Are there any new requirements for you, the provider, due to COVID-19?
    7. Who do you contact if you have any questions?
  5. Take care of your existing patients while welcoming new patients onboard. Don’t forget – there are new patients out there, seeking a solution to their hearing loss, who may have foregone purchasing a hearing solution due to COVID-19 – but that doesn’t mean they’ve given up. While it is important to take care of your existing patients, you must remain aware of the revenue you’re bringing in to sustain the business – especially since existing patients often don’t bring any revenue for follow ups. When the opportunity or referral for a new patient is sent your way – don’t be afraid to offer your services. Sure, you may have to work a bit differently in our “new normal,” but have a plan to take care of them so you don’t have to turn them away.

What does the future hold? Will we rebound?

While none of us claims to be able to predict where our industry will be in the next 12-24 months, history has already shown us how resilient the hearing healthcare industry can be. Throughout the first three installments of this blog series, we have demonstrated the opportunity Managed Care and TPRNs have to offer your business – and what you have to offer them as a preferred provider.

This may be the point in time in which you see your breakdown of private pay vs Managed Care patients shift – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Perhaps one of the most consistent patient streams is that of Managed Care and TPRNs. This may be the point in time in which you see your breakdown of private pay vs Managed Care patients shift – and there’s nothing wrong with that. What we do know is that as a preferred provider you have entered a relationship where both parties are equally concerned about how each other performs, and with the shared goal that the patient gets the best experience and care they deserve.

As you look at the future and rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic, don’t forget to look at the different levers you have to rely upon to keep your business strong and healthy. After all – communication and connection to one another is a lifeline that connects us all and is a gift you are well poised to deliver. As we embark on our “new normal,” keep an open mind, keep the lines of communication open, and we know you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Have a Question?

At Phonak, we strive to be your valued partner, and the resource you trust when you have questions about Managed Care and TPRNs. During these unprecedented times it has never been so important for us to provide you the support and guidance you need. As you are navigating these uncharted waters, our experts and specialists are here to support you. Send us your questions at managedcare@phonak.com, and we’ll do our best to earn your trust!

Resources

  1. Hearing Health &Technology Matters Change on the Horizon: COVID-19 and the New Hearing Healthcare Consumer, 5/13/2020
  2. Beckers Hospital Review, COVID-19 Pushed Telemedicine Ahead a Decade, 5/8/2020
  3. Hearing Review, Results of the Covid-19 Impact Survey #2, 4/22/2020