Pre-screening Patients: Chat and Digital Communication

The COVID-19 outbreak has your patients worried, and as a practice you’re either gearing up for rigorous new precautionary steps, or you’re already in the thick of it. As such, many practices are looking for ways to provide patients with much-needed clarity, and ways to stay connected to patients without increased risk of exposure. But when everyone has questions about their symptoms and treatment options, how do you know who should come to the office and who should stay home?  Since you must focus your care on cases that can’t be managed at home, and with test kits so rare, it’s critical that practices find ways to pre-screen patients online. As the number of cases climb, so too will the number of patients calling or requesting video or in-person appointments. While everyone deserves care, your focus must be on severe illnesses, not everyday colds.

You can’t see everyone in person, but thanks to new communications tools, you can quickly triage those that require in-person care from those that can hunker-down and wait. It’s time for practices to consider new methods of pre-scr

eening patients online: chat and texting.

Creating a Better Comms Plan     

Right now, most practices rely on phone calls and email for a majority of remote patient interactions. As cases of COVID-19 climb, these traditional methods can create bottlenecks that prevent people needing immediate care from getting it. Phone lines get tied up. Email is a slower way to respond—and isn’t a great approach for larger volumes of patients (plus for many patients, these are no longer their go-to modes of communication). On top of that, Facebook and other messaging tools are just more things to keep track of. Meanwhile, with the right tools, you can put people at ease while identifying critical cases that need your attention. For most, it’s a matter of finding a communications tool that helps you scale up to meet higher demands.

Here are some things every practice should consider:

-       Broaden Communication Methods – Your patients need easy ways to get in touch with you, so consider whether it’s time to think beyond emails and phone calls. More sophisticated messaging tools let you reach out to patients via email, text-messages, webchats, and even through social platforms like Facebook all from a single simple interface. Ask yourself: how can we be easier for patients to reach so we can evaluate more of them remotely?

-       Add a WebChat to Your Home Page – Practices should consider adding a web chat to their website home page. This lets you instantly chat with potential patients that visit your website, so you can ask pre-screening questions and determine whether they require an appointment or not.

-       Bring All Messages Together – If you now have 4-5 ways for a patient to reach you, you have a lot to keep track of. A huge benefit of some messaging tools is the ability to bring messages from everywhere into one single screen. That means that whether a patient emailed, texted, reached out via Facebook or the chat on your homepage, it’s all in one screen. This makes it easy for practices to stay on top of all their messages, even with an increase in patient inquiries.  

Pre-Screening Best Practices

From here, it’s important to ensure your staff understands your screening process. Ask yourself:

-       What questions must the team ask—whether on the phone or online—to validate symptoms?

-       Based on answers you receive, what is the next step after a pre-screening? Video chat? An in-person appointment? For suspected cases of COVID-19, what extra steps must your team take? How will you flag these patients and keep them distanced from staff and other patients? If they have a need outside the realm of COVID-19, it’s probably a good idea to have clear instructions for those, too.

-       For new appointments, you should set up a remote waiting room so patients keep a distance from each other and only interact with necessary care providers.

-       What is your approach for following up on cases? Texts? Emails? Traditional phone calls? A blend? The right tools can automate much of this to ease the management burden and keep you focused on clinical treatment.

A Note on HIPAA

Some practices are concerned about whether online webchat, video, or other remote communication tools will violate guidelines set for in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability and Act (HIPAA). According to a March 17, 2020 document from the Health and Human Service Department, the Office of Civil Rights will not impose penalties on practices relying on tools like these during the current public health emergency. See the document, “Notification of Enforcement Discretion for telehealth remote communications during the COVID-19 nationwide public health emergency” for more information.


Right now, practices must focus on effective ways of getting information to and from their patients. As the outbreak continues, traditional lines of communication can create bottlenecks. Only by adopting new tools and processes can practices hope to keep on top of the demand and continue to focus care efforts on those who need it the most.

Practices have enough on their plate without worrying about finding new tools to do everything listed above. At Swell, we have your back. We’re offering our communications package completely free for 60 days. With it, you can do everything above and plenty more. Reach out to us and we can get you started with zero obligation, right away. We’re committed to helping you succeed during these tough times and well beyond them.

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