This Holiday Season Will Be Rough. Care Teams Can Do Just a Little More to Achieve Big Patient Impact.

The holidays are fast approaching and although “the most wonderful time of year” sounds lovely, it’s also 2020. 

COVID is further complicating what is already a complex time for many people. The holidays deliver a powerful combination of stressors: high expectations, family dynamics, economic limitations, the list goes on. In a “good” year, 77 percent of people say they have a hard time relaxing, 62 percent feel very or somewhat elevated stress levels, and 53 percent feel financial pressure in the holiday season. 

But this isn’t a good year. And it means there’s an opportunity and obligation for care teams to really dig deep and elevate their games this holiday season – because isolation will make depression, domestic abuse, stress, struggles with substance abuse, and suicide ideation worse.

For doctors, that means recognizing that there’s no need to go it alone. Care teams are diverse: clergy, nurses, specialists, pharmacists, billing personnel, social workers, educators, physician assistants, the list is endless. There’s always a reason for someone on the team to reach out and touch the patient.

And the ways to do that are much more extensive. Digital communication methods aren’t overly intrusive. They don’t demand much time from the patient: a quick scan of a text or email at the low end and a short chat on phone or video on the “high” end. Patients are already more accustomed to these mechanisms as well so the hurdle of patient adoption isn’t as high. 

With training, care team members can take advantage of even straightforward patient interactions — like follow-up on a bill or a refill conversation — as listening opportunities. They can ask simple standard questions that function both as ice-breakers and tea leaves that can be read for red flags around troubling levels of sadness, atypical drug and alcohol use, etc. Everything from tone of voice to departure from typical behavior – for example, a normally chatty patient who’s suddenly giving one-word answers – can be insights into how a patient is doing at a hard time of year. More ears and eyes equal better patient outcomes, plain and simple.

More broadly, at every point in a care interaction – whether it’s the first time we meet a patient or the fiftieth appointment – we have a crucial opportunity to develop a strong, comfortable rapport. Working hard to create that trust in the beginning is imperative, in fact, for times of high stress like Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or New Year’s Eve….or a pandemic. Although our abilities don’t fully depend on patients’ honesty – we have diagnostics, testing, protocols, and instincts to fill the gap – it sure does help. 

Be intentional around creating opportunities to use telehealth and connect with patients over the next six weeks. Your conversations don’t have to be fraught with meaning or particularly emotional. Sometimes just reinforcing that you’re there if they need to get in touch is enough to anchor people, to ground them enough to get through this time.

All we have to do is try. When was the last time you asked your patients how they were feeling?


About the Author: 

Dr. Rawlinson is an entrepreneurial physician executive, strategic leader, and digital healthcare product innovator. He is passionate about creating digital tools and new delivery models that reduce waste and inefficiency, improve quality, and drive improved performance and satisfaction. 

Dr. Rawlinson volunteers for The Maven Project and Rotacare Bay Area. He tweets @CMIO. He is an avid road cyclist and a big fan of Manchester City FC in the English Premier League!

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