RISE has once again teamed up with Engagys to find out how communications tactics have changed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are five findings from our most recent survey. Learn more when we discuss the complete results during a one-hour webinar at 1:30 p.m. EST, Wednesday, Sept. 16. The webinar is free to RISE Association members.

As the pandemic continues to evolve, so too does the health care industry’s response. As states reopen in varying degrees, concerns surrounding health consumer engagement abound. Many health consumers are afraid to receive the preventive care, and in some cases chronic care treatments, they so desperately need. While most experts agree that deferring such care will result in catastrophe, the health care industry has yet to determine the most effective way to communicate the need to consumers.

Following our late March/April survey, RISE and Engagys have again collaborated, reaching out to health plans and others to help industry peers leverage one another's experience during this challenging time. The second installment of this survey queried close to 50 industry professionals July 21-25 to determine how their communication tactics may have changed as the pandemic developed. Participants included executives from health care entities that spanned engagement and experience, operations, clinical, and administrative responsibilities. The survey focused on communications prioritization and channels, messaging and focus, and ongoing communications strategies. Here are five takeaways:

Inbound call center activity is on the rise

Forty-four percent of health plans surveyed reported increased call center activity in the last 30-60 days. This reported increase, says Kathleen Ellmore, managing director of Engagys, (pictured right) comes at a time during a rapidly changing environment, shifting priorities from deferring care to encouraging care, a geographically diverse landscape of lockdown, changing hospital capacity, increased access to testing locations,co and more.

“Adding to an already challenging environment is the inability of the now remote call center workforce to connect over the cube to ask more senior representatives questions on the fly. Pressure will be on to promote consistent knowledge management, with the ability to dynamically update and share new information as the environment continues to shift,” she says.

Members want information about COVID-19 tests, locations, costs, and coverage

Asked about the COVID-19 topics people call about, most respondents say inbound calls related primarily to testing availability and locations as well as cost and coverage questions around COVID-19 concerns or issues.

Ellmore says the results of the survey indicate that even having lived with the pandemic for half a year, COVID-19 is still the topic on everyone's minds. “Ensuring that your call center representatives have efficient, automated tools to assist them in giving members the answers they need in real time will be critical to deliver on the promise of consumer experience,” she said.

Payer-provider collaboration is vital to help members seek care

Nearly half (47.5 percent) of payer respondents said they have partnered with providers to help members seek care. Those partnerships include supporting mobile units staffed with providers in plan networks; incorporating provider names on brands into call scripts, emails, or other communications templates; cobranding with signage, promotion, or other approaches; and creating collateral including posters, videos, or other material to give to providers.

Ellmore says partnering with providers is more important than ever to drive health consumers back into care. Early studies indicated that when hospital systems canceled all elective procedures, consumers were left with the impression that it was not safe to visit. In reality, providers were trying to conserve personal protective equipment.

 “As an industry we need to overcome the barriers that are in consumers' minds today,” Ellmore says. “Lifting those barriers is the only way we will prevent a tsunami of health costs and poor outcomes in years to come. Data show health plans beginning to implement creative initiatives to tackle this challenge: co-branding with providers, increased in-home visits, and mobile units to name a few.”

COVID-19 highlights member engagement challenges

Top challenges to member engagement included insufficient use or enablement of digital channels, poor engagement of members who would benefit from available social determinants of health-related programs, and the insufficient measurement of communications effectiveness.

Ellmore notes that health plans have known for some time that member outreach must improve. Seeking the most efficient, cost effective and engaging communication method is the ongoing challenge. “The movement away from print communications is critical,” she says. “Leveraging digital channels that can be measured and optimized is the key to effective communications. While other industries have utilized digital outreach and ongoing measurement for decades, health care has lagged. COVID-19 has pushed the industry to make change—fast. This crisis highlights the need to be flexible and adapt.”

COVID-19 has accelerated existing consumer engagement-related trends

The move to telehealth is the most obvious, and the importance of leveraging digital channels more generally to interact with consumers in real time and at their convenience is just as important, according to Ellmore. Neither of these trends emerged because of COVID-19, but the urgency to act is greater because of COVID-19. While plans understand the need to change their approach to consumer interactions, the information collected in the survey indicate that they struggle to make the changes fast enough.

“Health plans will need to initiate, sponsor from the highest organizational elevation, and fund centralized efforts to improve consumer engagement and experience,” she says. “We see health plans continuing to rely upon grass roots and often disjointed initiatives to effect change. This is insufficient. One great irony of the pandemic is the shift in Medical Loss Ratio due to deferred elective procedures. Can health plans get creative and help offset their financial imbalance with investments aimed at improving infrastructure? We think so.”

Ellmore will join RISE Executive Director Kevin Mowll to discuss the survey findings during a webinar, COVID-19 Communications Response Survey II: Engaging Health Consumers-Effective Communications in a Rapidly Shifting Landscape, on Wednesday, Sept. 16, at 1:30 p.m. EST. Topics will include communication prioritization and channel mix; funding; messaging; call center activity; initiatives designed to draw consumers to seek care; member experience; and response plans and strategies. The webinar is free to RISE Association members. Click here for more information about the webinar and to register.