The Impact of COVID on Healthcare Customer Service & 2 Key Insights

18 Mar 2022

COVID-19 has undeniably left its impact on our lives, our communities, and our work. It has been over two years now, and customer expectations, job expectations, operational alignment, and business investment have significantly shifted to enable us to move forward. But what exactly happened? And, specific to healthcare, how did this impact customer service operations?

Frost & Sullivan surveyed healthcare decision-makers at the height of the pandemic to discover how healthcare operations evolved. The report provides a revealing snapshot and digs into the data on such hot topics as changes in communication preferences, work-from-home, omnichannel preferences, and where investment is heading.

There’s a lot to unpack in the report, and for the sake of brevity, I’ll limit myself to two of the most significant findings and their investment priorities.

Changes in the big communications pie

The volume of all communications increased during the pandemic. It makes sense because people stayed at home, had a lot of healthcare questions, and went online or picked up the phone for answers. And here’s what the research revealed. 

Voice remains king, while other channels are making strides and taking larger pieces of the total communication pie. Voice commanded 56% of all conversations before the pandemic, but dropped to 37% in the middle of it as customers adapted to digital channels.

At the same time, the use of social channels really accelerated, moving from a nascent 8% of all communications to a whopping 20%, according to the survey. Why? Can I quote myself from a blog I wrote for Forbes, Healthcare Social Media Trends To Watch In 2022? “No longer a place to just connect with friends and share photos, social media is now a driving force in the healthcare community for disseminating information, advocating for change, and connecting communities in the pursuit of better health.”

Frost & Sullivan also found that healthcare providers and patients are becoming more comfortable with AI-powered self-service. To quote the report, “Those who invested in virtual agents saw a large increase in their use. This is completely in line with the trend of consumer preference for self-service, and for healthcare providers seeking to cut costs and utilize live agents for more complex and personal interactions.”

One key thing to note is the level of customer and patient satisfaction with different channels. Voice and other traditional channels received the highest satisfaction ratings. Unfortunately, we are still working out the kinks in AI and social. Out of nine different channel options, virtual agents and social media channels were at the bottom.

Net net, all the pieces in the communications pie grew bigger during the pandemic. The voice pie remains the biggest, but other digital slices grew proportionally larger. The rise in AI and social media point to the future of healthcare communication, although the survey found that they need to improve their flavor. But enough about pie. 

Trust a remote workforce?

The pandemic shifted millions of contact center agents to work-from-home overnight. This was a radical change two years ago, but now it feels normal. It definitively accelerated the adoption of cloud services for contact center and unified communications. But was this forced realignment of the most expensive part of any operation, human labor, productive?  

Ultimately, yes. But it was a gamble. Remote workforces were absolutely necessary during the pandemic.  They also offer managers the ability to cherry-pick talent that cannot be found locally. Plus, it  promises greater operational efficiency by eliminating brick-and-mortar costs.

Yet the leap to a remote workforce requires a lot of trust. Trust that your staff will do their jobs. Trust that the technology works. Trust that the security works. And, trust that the work culture can handle the change, i.e., if your supervisors must walk behind your staff at their desks to ensure they are working, going remote looks iffy. To quote Rowan Trollope, the CEO of Five9, “Would your work culture eat your strategic plans for lunch?”

Fortunately for healthcare, it worked. The survey indicated that more than 60% of agents moved to remote work, and most agreed that their productivity improved or stayed the same. Only 13% of respondents felt it had worsened. Pharmacies reported the greatest performance increase, with 71% of respondents saying their productivity had increased. Read the Frost & Sullivan report for much more depth.

This discovery will have a significant impact on remote healthcare going forward. Healthcare as an industry was already experiencing retail-like competitive pressures. The pandemic revealed that a remote workforce can remain productive while still maintaining a high level of satisfaction for both agents and patients. It also opens the door to intriguing ways to finding talent and cutting costs. 

Post-pandemic investments

Where are healthcare contact centers headed? The pandemic did not affect the four core drivers of healthcare operations: reducing costs, improving health outcomes, better patient experiences, and improved worker experiences. But it did force healthcare operations to move forward decisively in many exciting new directions.

So, when it comes to the two key findings that channels are changing and remote workers are succeeding, the following Frost & Sullivan statistics stood out. 

Improving communications channels

  • 43% of respondents plan to invest in virtual agents
  • 42% of respondents plan to invest in video chat
  • 40% of respondents plan to invest in virtual agents
  • 35% of respondents plan to invest in social media 

Supporting a remote workforce

  • 48% of respondents plan to invest in gamification
  • 42% of respondents plan to invest in eLearning for workers
  • 38% of respondents plan to invest in flexible APIs to integrate third-party capabilities

The pandemic compressed 10 years of change into two. Healthcare operations had to make massive digital shifts and a make a big bet on the success of remote work.  Overall, patient experience has improved with the increase of more convenient communication channels. The gamble on remote work played out well. Expect these directions to continue as healthcare operations seek better ways to provide personalized care while remaining competitive in the ever-evolving healthcare space.

To prepare for future directions, Five9 provides educational webinars where you can get a closer look at cloud contact center technology.



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